Sunday, 3 October 2010

Torture, murder, and state repression under Barack Obama

The hype of Obamania has long died down and the US President has slipped into his expected role as a typical Clinton-style Democrat. In the process, many of his supposedly "radical" campaign promises have fallen by the wayside - most notably that to close Guantánamo Bay.

Of late some quite specific consequences of this broken promise have come to light, as the blog Tiresias Speaks notes;
A US federal Judge dismissed a complaint Wednesday (9/29) brought by the families of two Guantánamo prisoners that alleged that the circumstances surrounding the men’s deaths had been covered up when they were declared suicides by the Pentagon in June of 2006. 

The families of Saudi prisoner Yasser al-Zahrani and Salah al-Salami of Yemen were asking US District Judge Ellen Huvelle to reexamine the case in light of new testimony from military personnel working at Guantánamo at the time of the “suicides” that directly contradicts official accounts. 

A third prisoner, Mani al-Utaybi of Saudi Arabia also died the same night, but his family has not filed a complaint. 

At the time of their deaths, Al-Zahrani, 22, and Al-Salami, 33, had been held at Guantánamo without charges for four years at the US naval base. According to the Pentagon, on the night of June 9th, 2006, Al-Zahrani, Al-Salami, and Utaybi were found at approximately the same time hanging from makeshift nooses in their cells. They were then rushed to the camp’s infirmary where they were shortly pronounced dead. 

The following day the commander at Guantánamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, put the base on lockdown. He ordered almost all reporters on the base to leave and told those already en route to turn back. He officially declared that the deaths were “suicides,” and he went on to say, “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” 

But new first-hand accounts from soldiers on duty at the base on the night of June 9th suggest that Admiral Harris’ and the Pentagon’s version of events is false and that the men may have actually died as the result of torture at a site off base known as “Camp No.” According to the petition, this site was called Camp No because if soldiers were asked if it existed the were supposed to say no. 

Army officer Joe Hickman says that he was supposed to log every vehicle that exited or entered the base. Even when Senator John McCain came to visit the base Hickman ensured that he was properly logged in and out. However, there was one windowless paddy wagon that was sometimes used to transport prisoners that he was not supposed to keep any log of. He and other soldiers say that they saw this van pick up three prisoners and drive them to Camp No on the evening of June 9th. 

When the van returned to base later it did not return the prisoners to their cells, instead it backed up to the infirmary. A medical officer told Hickman they had been sent to the infirmary, “because they had rags stuffed down their throats, and that one of them was severely bruised,” the petition said. 

When Hickman heard the official cause of death was suicide by hanging the next day he talked with the other guards who would have had to of seen if any bodies had been transported from the cells to the infirmary, but no one had seen any bodies being moved. 

The families of Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami demanded an independent autopsy, but when the bodies arrived they had already had all of their vital organs surrounding their throats removed making it impossible to 100% verify the cause of death.The medical examiners they had hired made requests for the organs to be sent from Guantánamo, but their requests were ignored. 

In her ruling Wednesday, Judge Huvelle did not really address any of these issues raised in the petition. Instead, she cited a decision by a federal appeals court in Washington stating that conditions at Guantánamo should not be investigated by the courts and should remain the purview of Congress alone due to national security concerns. 

In light of this ruling, it is unlikely that all of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Al-Zahrani, Al-Salami, and al-Utaybi will ever be discovered. The Obama Administration has already made it clear that it not interested in looking backwards to investigate potential war crimes and there is no reason to think that Congress would investigate the Pentagon’s official account. 

The whole incident and yesterday’s ruling in particular serve as a stark reminder of Obama’s broken promise to close Guantánamo within one year of taking office. Even if Obama does end up closing Guantánamo down, it is difficult not to wonder how much of its true history will remain forever unknown?
On its own, this would be a troubling story. But it is not occurring in isolation - rather, it is part of a broader context of gross civil liberties violations by the Obama administration.

Just as, here in Britain, the Blair era never saw the restoration of freedoms taken by Thatcher, so Obama has failed to right the wrongs of the Bush era. The USA PATRIOT Act remains in force. The illegal war in Afghanistan drags on. And the US can now kill its citizens without due process.

Yes, you read that right. From a May article by Glen Greenwald in Salon;
The most recent liberty-abridging, Terrorism-justified controversies have focused on diluting the legal rights of American citizens (in part because the rights of non-citizens are largely gone already and there are none left to attack).  A bipartisan group from Congress sponsors legislation to strip Americans of their citizenship based on Terrorism accusations.  Barack Obama claims the right to assassinate Americans far from any battlefield and with no due process of any kind.  The Obama administration begins covertly abandoning long-standing Miranda protections for American suspects by vastly expanding what had long been a very narrow "public safety" exception, and now Eric Holder explicitly advocates legislation to codify that erosion.  John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduce legislation to bar all Terrorism suspects, including Americans arrested on U.S. soil, from being tried in civilian courts, and former Bush officials Bill Burck and Dana Perino -- while noting (correctly) that Holder's Miranda proposal constitutes a concession to the right-wing claim that Miranda is too restrictive -- today demand that U.S. citizens accused of Terrorism and arrested on U.S. soil be treated as enemy combatants and thus denied even the most basic legal protections (including the right to be charged and have access to a lawyer).
And last week Greenwald wrote of the shroud of secrecy around this process;
At this point, I didn't believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record.  In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki's father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration late last night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims.  That's not surprising:  both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality.  But what's most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is "state secrets":  in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are "state secrets," and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.
Which, as the The Agitator rightly points out, "Obama is arguing the executive has the power to execute American citizens without a trial, without even so much as an airing of the charges against them, and that it can do so in complete secrecy, with no oversight from any court, and that the families of the executed have no legal recourse."

This should give us all a cause for worry. Not least because Obama's is currently the most liberal administration of western governments. And that the actions of the United States all too often set a precedent for others, not least its British "junior partner."

What we see here is nothing less than overt tyranny, being pushed through with much noise on the blogosphere but little on the ground.

The important fact to remember is that, no matter how much we bitch and moan on "teh internets," nothing will change. Righteous anger and moral outrage has to be accompanied by direct action. Tyranny can only be defeated through active resistance, and that is exactly what Obama has wrought.