April 3, 2008

A Gulag By Any Other Name

Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) successfully sued the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act (F.O.I.A.) for the release of numerous documents regarding the Bush Administration's approach to torture. Among those documents was a memorandum (part one is here; part two is here) from then-Deputy Attorney General John Yoo, the worst constituional law professor in the country, that outlined this approach, and which made the ridiculous claim that the laws of the United States do not apply to the President and the executive branch:
If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch's constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.
By coincidence, just days earlier, 60 Minutes profiled Murat Kurnaz, a German of Turkish descent who was swept up by Pakistani security forces in the months immediately after 9/11, and the world got to meet a man whose fate was a direct product of John Yoo's policy advice.

Traveling through Pakistan to study Islam in preparation for marriage to a bride who was more strictly religious than himself, Mr. Kurnaz was labeled a suspected terrorist, and sold to the U.S. military for a $3000 bounty. He then spent two months in a secret American facility in Afghanistan before being sent to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Despite the fact that official documents show U.S. and German authorities had determined as early as 2002 that he was innocent, he endured five years of interrogation, abuse and torture, and he was only released in 2006 because of a personal plea by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to President George W. Bush.

Murat Kurnaz has just published a memoir of his imprisonment and torture by the United States entitled Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo, and conducted an interview with Amnesty International about his experiences . In the latter - as well as in the 60 Minutes video, below - the interviewers note the reserved and outwardly calm demeanor of their subject, and Mr. Kurnaz describes his release this way:
I embraced my mother. She was crying, and I embraced her until she stopped... Everybody cried. I did not. I do not know if I can still cry. Perhaps I forgot how to cry in Cuba... On the journey to Bremen we stopped at a car park. I got out to breathe in the air. And I looked up above. I realized that it was the first time in five years that I could look up at the sky and see the stars. Then it became clear to me what had been taken away from me.
Done supposedly to "keep us safe," what was inflicted on Murat Kurnaz's is - to put it mildly - a complete outrage, only made worse by the rhetoric of "freedom" endlessly repeated by the White House until it has lost all meaning. In 2005, Amnesty International called the Guantanamo Bay camp "the gulag of our times," spawning blustery outrage from sources like the editorial board of The Washington Post:

Worrying about the use of a word may seem like mere semantics, but it is not. Turning a report on prisoner detention into another excuse for Bush-bashing or America-bashing undermines Amnesty's legitimate criticisms of U.S. policies and weakens the force of its investigations of prison systems in closed societies. It also gives the administration another excuse to dismiss valid objections to its policies as "hysterical."

The Soviet gulags, however, while dwarfing the facility at Guantanamo Bay in scale and characterized by forced labor, were unquestionably built to deny their inhabitants basic human rights without due process, and they offered an environment that was tailor-made for the abuse of prisoners, both systematically and incidentally. As noted by historian Kate Brown in a 2006 article in Harper's:
Indeed, American editorialists grounded their rejection of the Gulag metaphor in numbers. Soviet officials routed millions through the Gulag over several decades (3.7 million according to archival records). In the American case, we are talking about a mere 500 prisoners in Guantanamo, and roughly 30,000 in U.S. detention centers in Iraq. Human Rights Watch estimates that 50,000 people are currently held in domestic prisons without charges. It is undoubtedly true that the torture of tens of thousands is better than the torture of millions. But this defense becomes rather weak, not only if one believes in universal civil liberties and human rights, but also if one considers history.
Perhaps one day Murat Kurnaz will be given the opportunity to have John Yoo and The Washington Post explain why what he endured didn't happen at a gulag, and why he - and we - shouldn't bash President Bush or the America that continues to tolerate the existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. That's unlikely however, because despite his release and the complete dearth of evidence against him, Mr. Kurnaz is still a declared "unlawful enemy combatant," and cannot travel to the United States.

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