By IBRAHIM HEWITT
SOME people torture others for a living; it’s their job, and it’s wrong, very wrong. Torture has, of course, been around for as long as human beings have, or so it seems. And although today torture by the state appears to be a speciality of the Arab-Muslim world, most countries and communities have torture skeletons in their cupboards: the Spanish Inquisition, for example, or the Japanese during World War II, or Pol Pot in Cambodia; the French in Algeria; the CIA and their henchmen, including Israelis and Palestinians. The incredible cruelty of human beings against their fellow human beings knows no bounds, and today it’s usually done in the name of “security” or defending “democracy”.
Yvonne Ridley has written about Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. This mother of three children is to be put on trial in the United States this week and has been subject to kidnap and torture in Afghanistan and Pakistan (more breeding grounds for torturers, it seems) from where she was kidnapped and taken to the US; it is not known what has happened to her children. In New York, she is subjected to humiliating invasive strip searches by prison guards whenever she has had visits from her lawyers or
attended court for pre-trial hearings. The prosecution counsel has admitted that Dr Aafia is not a member of al-Qaida; has revealed that she has no links to any terrorist organization; has stated that there were no fingerprints on the gun she was supposed to have wrested from one of the soldiers confronting her in Afghanistan; and conceded that no bullets were recovered from the cell in which her “crime” was supposed to have been committed. Read that sentence again, please and then ask yourself, as Yvonne Ridley is asking, “Why is there even a trial?” Mental torture compounds the physical variety already inflicted. This is happening in the name of the United States of America, but are we surprised?
The US has been complicit in torture around the world, as we have seen in Iraq and the cases of “extraordinary rendition” in countries across Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Does anything, even a “war on terror”, justify torture? Reading Franz Fanon’s account of his time as a psychiatrist in Algeria (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961) is horrifying; he worked with torturers and those whom they tortured. If it’s any consolation, the former suffered mentally for their “work”. The really disturbing thing is that those in authority know what is being done in their name, to protect their positions of power, but do nothing about it. We might get a few weasel words thrown out for public consumption but the practice still goes on, in another “extraordinary rendition” country if necessary.
And do you know what? There are people out there who don’t care; who won’t even bother to read about Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and those like her. She’s a Muslim; so what if she was in the wrong place at the wrong time? There’s no smoke without fire! Who cares about “human rights”, we must be protected! You can see the blog responses now. Even the Independent’s Howard Jacobson calls it “drivel” to think that “If we lose our civil liberties... we surrender precisely what the terrorists wish to take” (Civil liberties or civil protection, 16 January 2010).
There is hope, however, in unexpected quarters; in the city where Dr. Aafia faces trial, in fact: “As a scholar of the Constitution, President Obama knows... that defeating terrorism cannot trump every other value. When weighing values, respect for a certain conception of what it means to live in an open society must be placed on the scale.” So wrote Ronald Sokol in the New York Times last week, adding, “If the response to terrorism is to target the innocent so as to get at the guilty, then the concept of an open society is significantly diminished. That was the tragedy of the Bush administration.”
Torturers know that the weak spot for the unfortunate creatures in their custody is likely to be the victims’ family members; if they can get to them, or just threaten to get to them, they can “break” the target of their inhumanity. Fanon records the use of rape against Algerian women whose husbands were members of the independence movement; rape has been used as a deliberate “war tactic” in Bosnia, Darfur and many other places, so much so that in 2008 the UN Security Council declared it to be a “weapon of war”. Yvonne Ridley says that she has seen CCTV footage of a woman prisoner – not Dr Aafia – “being held down by around four to five male prison warders while two female officers tear away at her clothes and then carry out full cavity searches.” This, she believes, “is tantamount to rape and had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would have thought it was filmed in a third world country.” I venture to suggest that even if it had been in a “third world country” in this “war on terror” it would probably have been carried out in the name of a Western democracy “protecting its interests”.
There is a General Election looming in Britain and now is as good a time as any to get assurances from politicians seeking our votes that they and their parties will condemn torture in all of its vile forms no matter who is doing it or why. Our “allies – especially in the Middle East, where “moderate Arab regimes” are adept at “breaking” their opponents in the torture chamber on behalf of their paymasters – need to get this message loud and clear. So do the Israelis, whose abuse of human rights is the supreme irony given the history of the Jewish people.
As the Israelis well know – perhaps now for reasons of political expediency rather than as a reminder of the terrible cost to humanity and human values ‑ Europe has had dark days when people were persecuted and killed for no other reason than that they were Jews. Without wishing to be overly-dramatic, we need to ensure that neither Muslims nor any other community are being lined up for extinction. That may be a forlorn hope, because if we examine how the media “softened up” Europe with anti-Semitic propaganda in the thirties there are striking parallels with the demonization of Muslims today. (Again, look at the irony – some of the newspapers that were helping to edge the Jews towards the gas chambers are today among the biggest supporters of Zionist Israel.) However, those who profess to be democrats need to proceed with great caution: according to Ronald Sokol, “there are limits as to how even non-resident aliens can be treated if the United States is to retain a commitment to the rule of law.” For “United States”, read any western democracy. The rule of law is already on the side of justice, because, Sokol reminds us, since the end of the Second World War, “nations have come to accept that human rights law prohibits the use of certain criteria as a basis for treating people differently. Among the banned criteria are race, gender, religion and national origin.”
In 2004, Lord Hoffman, one of Britain’s Law Lords, wrote, “I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation”. What we need now is a renewed commitment by the international community to uphold human rights law. Howard Jacobson may call it “drivel”, but when national and nationalistic politicians take it upon themselves to “protect” us, crimes of all kinds can and do take place. International checks and balances are essential if human rights abusers – including terrorists ‑ are to be challenged and defeated.
Ibrahim Hewitt is Senior Editor of Middle East Monitor and is based in London, UK.