US Challenged on Psychological Torture of Prisoners

One of the great non-stories of our post-9/11 world has been the brutal, depraved way that the US government treats so-called “enemy combatants” seized in the war on terror. We have incarcerated hundreds of people without trial, often based on secret evidence, and denied them access to counsel. These are not individuals who have been tried and convicted of terrorist acts. The American public and media have no way of knowing who these people are and whether they have committed any crime. The Bush administration simply says “trust us”.

Amazingly, the suspension of due process and human rights standards in America’s military prisons (as in America’s prisons generally) is no secret. It’s reported in the media, but somehow this shredding of the Constitution has never generated the same level of outraged buzz as, for example, a picture of two men kissing. 

In an article by political commentator Naomi Klein, Friday’s Guardian newspaper (UK) reports that our government’s widespread practice of deliberately driving prisoners insane is finally being challenged in court:

Something remarkable is going on in a Miami courtroom. The cruel methods US interrogators have used since September 11 to “break” prisoners are finally being put on trial. This was not supposed to happen. The Bush administration’s plan was to put José Padilla on trial for allegedly being part of a network linked to international terrorists. But Padilla’s lawyers are arguing that he is not fit to stand trial because he has been driven insane by the government.

Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was classified as an “enemy combatant” and taken to a navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a cell 9ft by 7ft, with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones. Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days. He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he was injected with a “truth serum”, a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.

According to his lawyers and two mental health specialists who examined him, Padilla has been so shattered that he lacks the ability to assist in his own defence. He is convinced that his lawyers are “part of a continuing interrogation program” and sees his captors as protectors. In order to prove that “the extended torture visited upon Mr Padilla has left him damaged”, his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during those years in the navy brig. The prosecution strenuously objects, maintaining that “Padilla is competent” and that his treatment is irrelevant….

Many have suffered the same symptoms as Padilla. According to James Yee, a former army Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo, there is an entire section of the prison called Delta Block for detainees who have been reduced to a delusional state. “They would respond to me in a childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over.” All the inmates of Delta Block were on 24-hour suicide watch.

Human Rights Watch has exposed a US-run detention facility near Kabul known as the “prison of darkness” – tiny pitch-black cells, strange blaring sounds. “Plenty lost their minds,” one former inmate recalled. “I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors.”

These standard mind-breaking techniques have never faced scrutiny in an American court because the prisoners in the jails are foreigners and have been stripped of the right of habeas corpus – a denial that, scandalously, was just upheld by a federal appeals court in Washington DC. There is only one reason Padilla’s case is different – he is a US citizen. The administration did not originally intend to bring Padilla to trial, but when his status as an enemy combatant faced a supreme court challenge, the administration abruptly changed course, charging Padilla and transferring him to civilian custody. That makes Padilla’s case unique – he is the only victim of the post-9/11 legal netherworld to face an ordinary US trial.

Read the whole article here. (The reader comments are also worthwhile.) Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: Rise of Disaster Capitalism will be published in September.

Meanwhile, veteran civil-rights crusader Nat Hentoff keeps the spotlight on our government’s shameful treatment of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was kidnapped by the CIA and secretly deported to Syria, where he was tortured for 10 months in an underground cell before Syrian officials admitted that he had no connection to Al Qaeda. Heads have rolled in the Canadian government, which provided the shaky evidence to the CIA, but US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales continues to deny responsibility for the incident. Read the Village Voice story here. (Hat tip to Catholic bloggers Eve Tushnet and Mark Shea, who have done a heroic job challenging the pro-torture line taken by some Christian conservatives.)

Write to your representatives. Donate to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Do something!

2 comments on “US Challenged on Psychological Torture of Prisoners

  1. Hank Rodgers says:

    Thanks for passing this great article on, Jendi! NOW, we need to get major US media outlets to pick up this Guardian story. It is time to bring this, so-called, government down!

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Some unconventional activist techniques we’ve tried at NoPornNorthampton include buying Google advertising keywords, so that anyone who is searching the web for terms like “porn” or “child abuse” will see ads pointing them to our website, containing hundreds of articles, book reviews, studies, etc. about how porn harms families and neighborhoods. Wouldn’t it be great if someone created a blog like that about US prison conditions? I’d love to type “George W. Bush” or “Republican Party” into Google someday and see an anti-torture site come up number one!

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