Archive | May 2013

Bradley Manning’s ‘show trial’ set to begin as grassroots campaigns gain momentum

bradley manning hero

With Bradley Manning’s court martial trial finally set to begin next week — more than three years after his initial arrest on suspicion of being the source of the biggest leak of classified documents in U.S. history — various campaigns are gaining momentum to ensure that he receives a fair and transparent trial, and to urge the world’s leading human rights organizations to recognize Manning as a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience.

A petition at Avaaz calls on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in particular, to take a stand in support of this imprisoned whistleblower:

It is very important that the two biggest human rights organizations acknowledge Bradley Manning as a “Political Prisoner” and/or “Prisoner of Conscience” before his trial begins on June 3, 2013. If his actions can be misconstrued as “aiding the enemy” by the law, despite his providing the information to the public at large via “non-enemy” news sources, this sets the precedent of criminalizing of all future whistleblowers.

A blog called Amnesty for Bradley Manning, using the hashtag #Amnesty4Manning on Twitter, has also been launched with the sole purpose of pressuring Amnesty International to declare Manning a prisoner of conscience. Advocating that Amnesty International’s members and the general public call, email, tweet and send postcards to the Secretariat of Amnesty International, the #Amnesty4Manning campaign notes,

Manning has been imprisoned for over three years and was subjected to psychological torture accompanied by highly abusive treatment for nine of those months. Torture techniques included solitary confinement, humiliation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and stress positions of being shackled in a 6’ x 8’ cell. Through his imprisonment, Manning has exposed the dark side of the US justice system which keeps his case shrouded in secrecy. One has to question what the US government is doing behind closed doors. Why shield the public from information regarding his case?

Pointing out that Amnesty International’s own website urges members of the public to contact them with information on human rights violations, #Amnesty4Manning states, “It’s time we give them a call.” The campaign provides contact information for Amnesty International and even offers several printable postcards that can be mailed to the Secretariat in London.

bradley manning post card

Although the concept of “political prisoner” is rather ill-defined in international law, several workable definitions have been proposed over the years, including by Amnesty International. Under some of these definitions, it seems clear that Manning would qualify.

As Amnesty International has explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”

In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;
  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;
  • a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.

A definition of “political prisoner” recently adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria:

a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;

b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence;

c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;

d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,

e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.” (SG/Inf(2001)34, paragraph 10).

According to a more concise definition of the term in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a political prisoner is “someone who is in prison because they have opposed or criticized the government of their own country.”

It’s clear that under any number of these criteria, Manning would qualify as a political prisoner, if not a prisoner of conscience. He was clearly motivated by his conscience and out of concern over the evidence of war crimes, corruption and general wrongdoing committed by his government that he was privy to as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Further, the potential sentence he faces of death or life in prison for the “aiding the enemy” charge that the government is pursuing would clearly be out of proportion to the offense he is accused of.

Regarding his decision to provide the documents to WikiLeaks, Manning explained before making his decision in online chat logs with his friend Adrian Lamo (who ultimately betrayed him), that his motivations were purely altruistic, concerned for example by “how the first world exploits the third,” and recognizing that the information could have a great impact on the earth’s entire population:

(12:15:11 PM) bradass87: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?
(12:16:38 PM) bradass87: or Guantanamo, Bagram, Bucca, Taji, VBC for that matter…
(12:17:47 PM) bradass87: things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people
(12:21:24 PM) bradass87: say… a database of half a million events during the iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures… ? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?

He further elaborated on his motives in full testimony at a pretrial hearing earlier this year, which was later leaked and posted on YouTube:

Manning said he was particularly disturbed by a 39-minute video showing Apache helicopter pilots laughing during a 2007 attack in Baghdad that killed a number of civilians and a Reuters journalist:

They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote “dead bastards,” and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

According to his statement, after being rebuffed by his commanding officer, to whom he attempted to bring information of human rights abuses in Iraq, and after being rejected by traditional news outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times, he ultimately decided to release a trove of classified information to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

Manning provided three important bodies of documents to WikiLeaks: the Iraq war logs, which consist of 391,000 field reports, including the notorious video of the Apache helicopter gunning down a crowd of Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists in July 2007 (killing over a dozen of them and injuring several small children). This batch of information also included documentation of the Haditha massacre in which 24 Iraqi civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly, were systematically murdered by U.S. Marines (a crime for which the perpetrators were never punished).

Following that release by WikiLeaks, there were 90,000 Afghan war logs, providing a devastating portrayal of the deteriorating war in Afghanistan. The war logs, made public in July 2010, revealed how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents in Afghanistan and how a secret “black” unit of special forces has hunted down suspected Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial. Another document of great public interest expressed suspicion that the Pakistanis were arming and funding the Afghan insurgency.

And, finally, Manning’s document release included 260,000 diplomatic cables, possibly the most controversial of his leaks, since the sheer volume called into question whether his actions demonstrated any self-restraint or caution. These leaks, however, also included some of most explosive revelations, and arguably had the most impact globally, including providing the spark for the Arab Spring.

These leaks included details on how the U.S. government had lobbied to keep down the minimum wage in Haiti so as to keep manufacturing costs low for American employers and also provided documentation of Tunisian corruption, which played a role in the revolution there.

In addition, the leaked State Department cables revealed that the United States had been routinely violating the Vienna Convention by committing espionage against UN officials. As the Guardian reported on Nov. 28, 2010, “Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.”

More recently, the Cablegate documents have provided the backbone for research by the U.S.-based NGO Food and Water Watch, which recently released a report based on an extensive analysis of the cables. Significantly, Food and Water Watch found that “The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.”

The report, Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda, further explains,

The State Department worked especially hard to promote the interests of Monsanto, the world’s biggest biotech seed company in 2011. Monsanto appeared in 6.1 percent of the biotech cables analyzed between 2005 and 2009 from 21 countries. The State Department exercised its diplomatic persuasion to bolster Monsanto’s image in host countries, facilitate field-testing or approval of Monsanto crops and intervene with governments to negotiate seed royalty settlements.

Taken together, the State Department cables, the Afghan war logs and the Iraq war logs have been highly embarrassing for the United States government, and have undermined the regime of secrecy that the Obama administration has so aggressively attempted to maintain.

This secrecy is now playing out in Manning’s trial itself, which has been marked by an extraordinary lack of openness. In response to the secrecy surrounding the trial, a group of prominent journalists has filed a lawsuit calling on the military judge presiding over the trial to “grant the public and press access to the government’s filings, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of the proceedings.” None of these have been made available to the public to date.

“Secret trials are commonplace in dictatorships, but have no place in this country.” said co-plaintiff Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. “The Obama administration conducts unconstitutional dragnet surveillance of journalists to uncover protected sources, and targets whistleblowers with unprecedented use of the espionage act.”

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, who has been granted political asylum by the Ecuadorean government to protect him from persecution by the U.S., has gone so far as to call Manning’s upcoming court martial a “show trial.”

“This is a show trial,” he explained on Democracy Now. “The trial is meant to go for 14 to 16 weeks, And the prosecution, the Pentagon and possibly White House is hungry for this.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights goes to federal court in two weeks to argue the lawsuit seeking press and public access to the court-martial proceedings and documents. For the time being, the Freedom of the Press Foundation is crowd-funding donations to hire a grassroots court stenographer to record trial transcripts, as the U.S. government has so far refused to make transcripts available to the public.

A “Mass Rally for Bradley Manning” is taking place at the site of the court martial at Fort Meade, MD, on June 1 to demand a fair trial for the accused Army private. “Now is the time to get loud and show the government why you oppose the over-prosecution of this brave whistleblower,” says the Center for Constitutional Rights.

More information about the rally, including transportation options, are available at the Save Bradley Manning website. A list of solidarity actions in other cities and countries is available here.

bradley manning poster

International criticism of war on terror persists despite Obama’s assurances

war-on-terrorOver the past week, international bodies such as the European Parliament and the UN Human Rights Committee have raised grave concerns over continuing U.S. lawlessness in its prosecution of the war on terror, and in particular the travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay.

In a resolution adopted last Thursday, the day of President Obama’s big speech attempting to reassure the American public and the international community about drones and Gitmo, the European Parliament noted concern for the well-being of the hunger striking prisoners at Guantanamo and especially those being force-fed. The EP expressed anxiety in particular over the mental and physical condition of the prisoners, “a number of whom have been subjected to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.”

The European Parliament reiterated its call on the US authorities “to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp immediately and prohibit the use of torture and ill-treatment in all circumstances” and called “for those inmates who have been cleared for release to be released, transferred to their home countries or other countries for resettlement, and for the remaining detainees to be charged in a civil court with fair trial standards.”

The body also criticized the military commissions that have been set up to try some Guantanamo detainees, as these commissions “do not meet international fair trial standards.”

It further pointed out that the continuing detention without charge or trial of these 166 men is contrary to basic principles of justice.  Arbitrary detention “is in clear breach of international law and that this severely undermines the United States’ stance as an upholder of human rights,” noted the resolution.

As British journalist Andy Worthington explained,

As far as current action is concerned, involving European countries directly, the European Parliament resolution is noteworthy for its call for the coordination of “a joint EU Member States’ initiative” not only “to urge the US President to act” on revisiting his failed promise to close Guantánamo, but also to offer to “receive additional Guantánamo inmates on European soil, especially the approximately dozen men cleared for release who cannot return to their home countries.”

Testifying at the UN Human Rights Committee today, High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay warned that U.S. counter-terror policies are violating human rights and undermining international law. She criticized in particular Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo and admonished European nations for participating in the forced disappearance program dubbed “extraordinary rendition” by the United States.

“The United States’ failure to shut down the Guantanamo detention centre has been an example of the struggle against terrorism failing to uphold human rights, among them the right to a fair trial,” Pillay said.

She continued:

The continuing indefinite detention of many of these individuals amounts to arbitrary detention, in breach of international law, and the injustice embodied in this detention centre has become an ideal recruitment tool for terrorists. I have repeatedly urged the Government of the United States of America to close Guantanamo Bay in compliance with its obligations under international human rights law. I therefore acknowledge President Obama’s statement last Thursday outlining practical steps towards closing the detention facility, such as the lifting of the moratorium on transferring relevant detainees to Yemen. I encourage the United States to ensure that all such measures are carried out in compliance with its obligations under international human rights law. In the meantime, so long as Guantanamo remains open, the authorities must make every effort to ensure full respect for the human rights of detainees, including those who choose to go on hunger strike.

I am dismayed by the continuing failure of many European States to undertake public and independent investigations of past involvement in the U.S. renditions programme, under which terrorist suspects were captured and delivered to interrogation centres without regard for due process. Some of them still languish in Guantanamo. Last September, the European Parliament denounced obstacles that have been encountered by a number of parliamentary and judicial inquiries into this topic. Credible and independent investigations are a vital first step towards accountability, and I call on States to make this a priority.

Last July, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly – a 323-member organization comprising lawmakers from Europe, North America and Central Asia – also adopted a resolution condemning the Obama administration’s blocking of European investigations into extraordinary rendition.

Supporting the criminal investigation carried out by Polish authorities into the rendition program and welcoming attempts by British parliamentarians to ascertain the level of the United Kingdom’s involvement, the resolution “insists that the United States Government co-operates with European investigations” and “calls upon the United States to release any pertinent information to appropriate investigators.”

Needless to say, since then, the U.S. has not adequately dealt with the rendition question. A 213-page report published earlier this year by the Open Society Justice Initiative documented how the CIA conspired with dozens of governments around the world to build a secret extraordinary rendition and detention program that spanned the globe and that the United States has failed to conduct effective investigations into these policies.

To date, the U.S. and the vast majority of the other 54 governments involved have refused to acknowledge their participation, much less compensate the victims, or hold accountable those most responsible for the program and its abuses, the Open Society concluded.

In its report on the U.S. human rights situation released last week, Amnesty International criticized the lack of accountability for deaths that have occurred in secret detention by the United States.

“The absence of accountability for crimes under international law committed under the administration of President George W. Bush in relation to the CIA’s programme of secret detention was further entrenched,” lamented Amnesty, noting in particular the lack of investigations into the deaths of two men who were believed to be tortured to death in U.S. custody.

Further, Amnesty International expressed concern over the use of drone strikes by the U.S. which amount to a policy of “extrajudicial executions in violation of international human rights law.”

Monsanto feels the heat on global day of protest

Hundreds of cities across the world held marches Saturday in a first-of-its-kind global demonstration against one of the world’s most powerful (and hated) corporations, Monsanto.  According to organizers, more than two million people participated in 436 cities in 52 countries.

With a focus on the health dangers of the genetically-modified foods that Monsanto has pioneered – including increased rates of cancer, infertility and birth defects – the demonstrations also sought to bring attention to the undue influence that this company wields over the political system, especially in the U.S.

As the movement explains on its website, “In the United States, the FDA, the agency tasked with ensuring food safety for the population, is steered by ex-Monsanto executives, and we feel that’s a questionable conflict of interests and explains the lack of government-led research on the long-term effects of GM products.”

This conflict of interest is perhaps best exemplified by the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, Michael Taylor, who has spent his career benefiting from the lucrative revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that purportedly regulate it.

An attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s, and then in the 80s, a private lawyer at the D.C. law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto, Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. He then went back to private industry as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto from 1998 until 2001.

When President Obama appointed him to the FDA in 2010, Taylor was a Senior Fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, working on issues related to agricultural assistance in Africa.

As April Short explains at Alternet,

Ex-Monsanto executives run the United States Food and Drug Administration, the agency tasked with ensuring food safety for the American public.

This obvious conflict of interest could explain the lack of government-led research on the long-term effects of GM products. Recently, the U.S. Congress and president together passed the law that has been dubbed “Monsanto Protection Act.” Among other things, the new law bans courts from halting the sale of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds.

The pro-Monsanto “Farmer Assurance Provision, Section 735,” rider was quietly slipped into Agricultural Appropriations provisions of the HR 933 Continuing Resolution spending bill, designed to avert a federal government shutdown. It states that the department of agriculture “shall, notwithstanding any other provisions of law, immediately grant temporary permits to continue using the [GE] seed at the request of a farmer or producer [Monsanto].”

Obama signed the law on March 29. It allows the agribusiness giant to promote and plant GMO and GE seeds free from any judicial litigation that might deem such crops unsafe. Even if a court review determines that a GMO crop harms humans, Section 735 allows the seeds to be planted once the USDA approves them.

Because policies enacted by corrupt governments often serve special interests such as Monsanto at the expense of the interests of the general public, the revolving door practice so prevalent among Monsanto executives and federal agencies in Washington is prohibited by international law.

As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

The U.S. has long disregarded these provisions of the UN Convention against Corruption, and in certain cases, such as the cozy corporate-government relationship with Monsanto, has taken the cronyism to another level. As revealed by the WikiLeaks “Cablegate” expose of 2010, Monsanto and other biotech companies enjoy an extremely comfortable status within the State Department, with U.S. diplomats routinely lobbying on their behalf with foreign governments.

According to a report based on an extensive analysis of the WikiLeaks cables, just published by Food and Water Watch,

The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.

The U.S. State Department has lobbied foreign governments to adopt pro-agricultural biotechnology policies and laws, operated a rigorous public relations campaign to improve the image of biotechnology and challenged commonsense biotechnology safeguards and rules — even including opposing laws requiring the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

The report, Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda, further explains,

The State Department worked especially hard to promote the interests of Monsanto, the world’s biggest biotech seed company in 2011. Monsanto appeared in 6.1 percent of the biotech cables analyzed between 2005 and 2009 from 21 countries. The State Department exercised its diplomatic persuasion to bolster Monsanto’s image in host countries, facilitate field-testing or approval of Monsanto crops and intervene with governments to negotiate seed royalty settlements.

U.S. embassies have attempted to burnish Monsanto’s image. The consulate in Munich, Germany, promised Monsanto that it would seek “even-handed” treatment of Monsanto’s core business by Bavarian officials, where farmers’ resistance to adopting biotech crops affected its brand. The embassy in Slovakia sought to “dispel myths about GMOs and advocate on behalf of Monsanto.”

In 2009, the embassy in Spain asked for “high level U.S. government intervention” at the “urgent requests” of Monsanto and a pro-biotech Spanish official in order to combat opposition to GE crops.

The State Department has even gone so far as to force other nations to accept biotech crop and food imports against their will. Working with the U.S. Trade Representative to promote the export of biotech crops, the State Department has used the full weight of U.S. diplomacy – with both carrots and sticks – to force nations that do not want these imports to accept U.S. biotech foods and crops.

As the March Against Monsanto puts it,

For too long, Monsanto has been the benefactor of corporate subsidies and political favoritism. Organic and small farmers suffer losses while Monsanto continues to forge its monopoly over the world’s food supply, including exclusive patenting rights over seeds and genetic makeup.

It is in this context that two million people took to the streets over the weekend.

Demonstration in Copenhagen, Denmark: middelalder monsanto 292 middelalder monsanto 295 middelalder monsanto 299 middelalder monsanto 288

March against Monsanto in Tokyo, Japan:

March against Monsanto in San Diego, CA:

monsanto san diego

monsanto san diego 2

Washington, DC:

“We will not stand for cronyism,” says the March Against Monsanto on its website. “We will not stand for poison. That’s why we March Against Monsanto.”

Obama’s speech: Sidestepping key questions on Gitmo, torture and drones

emperor obama big

In a wide-ranging speech Thursday on U.S. counter-terrorism policies, President Obama made a number of encouraging remarks regarding respect for the rule of law and renewed promises to ensure that the United States respects international norms – especially by finally closing the Guantanamo prison camp and guaranteeing that U.S. drone warfare complies with domestic and international law.

Notably, he also pledged that “this war, like all wars, must end,” a relief to many who might be under the impression that the U.S. is in an endless state of war.

Like most Obama speeches, the president touched on many of the right notes and made pledges that most reasonable people would welcome, especially the promise that the war on terror will indeed someday come to an end. But also like most Obama speeches, it is worth weighing the lofty rhetoric against the actual record, and comparing his claims against the facts.

This is true broadly, for example, when it comes to his pledge to someday bring the war on terror to an end, considering that as Commander in Chief he is in charge of the armed forces and has ultimate authority to hasten the war’s end. It is also true more narrowly on specific issues such as his renewed pledge to close Guantanamo.

In his speech, Obama announced the appointment of a new special envoy to focus on Guantanamo transfers and called for Congress’s cooperation:

I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO. I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.

But as the Center for Constitutional Rights pointed out on Twitter, he has had ample time to do what he is now promising to do. “Obama wants to review #Guantanamo transfers on ‘case-by-case basis,’” CCR tweeted. “Didn’t he have 4yrs to do that? Over half the men were cleared yrs ago.”

CCR has long argued that Obama possesses a great deal of authority to make specific transfers and that by failing to show the needed leadership, he may be forever tarnishing his legacy. As the group put it in a statement:

The president’s stated reengagement on Guantanamo is welcome, but long overdue.  However, unless he takes immediate steps to resume transfers and ultimately close the prison, his administration will not escape the “harsh judgment” of history he anticipated in his speech.  We welcome his decision to lift the ban on transfers to Yemen, which has trapped more than half of the men at the prison.  However, we are disappointed by the president’s comment that cleared men will only be released “to the greatest extent possible.”  While more than 100 men continue to starve themselves in a principled protest for their freedom, the president’s equivocation is troubling. After eleven years of detention without charge or trial, all of the men President Obama does not intend to give fair trials should be released and reunited with their families. Anything short of that threatens to worsen a potentially deadly crisis unfolding a Guantanamo.

Amnesty International has also questioned the president’s commitment to closing Guantanamo, noting in a report released yesterday that “At the end of 2012, nearly three years after President Obama’s deadline for closure of the Guantánamo detention facility, 166 men were still held at the base, the vast majority without charge or criminal trial.”

In light of the ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo, Amnesty has renewed its longstanding demands for the president to use his authority to close the prison camp, urging its supporters to “grab your phone and help us flood the White House with calls demanding action.”

amnesty-gitmo-obama

In its annual report on the U.S. human rights situation, Amnesty also questioned the Obama administration’s commitment to holding accountable those who broke the law in the previous administration. In a section entitled “Impunity,” Amnesty lamented:

The absence of accountability for crimes under international law committed under the administration of President George W. Bush in relation to the CIA’s programme of secret detention was further entrenched.

On 30 August, the US Attorney General announced the closure of criminal investigations into the death of two individuals in US custody outside the USA. He stated that no one would face criminal charges in relation to the deaths, believed to have occurred in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003. This followed the announcement in June 2011 that a “preliminary review” conducted into interrogations in the CIA programme was at an end and that, apart from in relation to the two deaths, further investigation was not warranted.

Despite this questionable record enabling torture impunity, Obama felt confident enough to brag about his record Thursday in supposedly returning the United States to the rule of law after eight lawless years of the Bush administration’s approach to the war on terror:

I believe we compromised our basic values – by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.

After I took office, we stepped up the war against al Qaeda, but also sought to change its course. We relentlessly targeted al Qaeda’s leadership. We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home. We pursued a new strategy in Afghanistan, and increased our training of Afghan forces. We unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.

While talking about his renewed interest in closing Gitmo, Obama was repeatedly interrupted by Medea Benjamin, an activist with the antiwar group Code Pink:

“Excuse me, President Obama, you are commander in chief,” Benjamin said. Rejecting his attempts to blame the failure to close Guantanamo on Congress, Benjamin shouted, “It’s you, sir!”  She admonished him to “Abide by the rule of law,” reminding him that he’s a constitutional lawyer.

To his credit, Obama stood up for her First Amendment rights and called her passion commendable. “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” he said. “Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said. But these are tough issues. And the idea that we can gloss over them is wrong.”

However, glossing over the issues is precisely what Obama was doing, in some respects. During his talk on drone warfare, for example, he focused narrowly on “one instance when we targeted an American citizen: Anwar Awlaki, the chief of external operations for AQAP.”

Explaining this controversial action, Obama said,

When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team

That’s who Anwar Awlaki was – he was continuously trying to kill people. He helped oversee the 2010 plot to detonate explosive devices on two U.S. bound cargo planes. He was involved in planning to blow up an airliner in 2009. When Farouk Abdulmutallab – the Christmas Day bomber – went to Yemen in 2009, Awlaki hosted him, approved his suicide operation, and helped him tape a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack. His last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil. I would have detained and prosecuted Awlaki if we captured him before he carried out a plot. But we couldn’t. And as President, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki.

Awlaki was killed in September 2011 along with Samir Khan, another U.S. citizen who was not specifically targeted but was traveling with him. Two weeks later, another drone attack killed Awlaki’s son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in Denver, along with his 17-year-old cousin and seven others.

When confronted about this killing last year, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs rather callously blamed the victim for his “choice” of a father:

I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.

In his speech, Obama did not provide any additional insight into the killing of the two teenagers – whether they were specifically targeted for assassination or on what grounds. What is known, however, is that Obama has approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at identified, high-value terrorists, but also “signature” strikes that target suspicious compounds in areas allegedly controlled by militants.

In fact, according to an analysis by the New America Foundation, of the thousands who have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, only 37 – or two percent – were leaders of al-Qaeda or affiliated organizations.

In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder officially acknowledged for the first time that drone strikes have killed at least four U.S. citizens, only one of whom was specifically targeted however. “Since 2009,” Holder wrote,

the United States, in the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qa’ida and its associated forces outside of areas of active hostilities, has specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi. The United States is further aware of three other U.S. citizens who have been killed in such U.S. counterterrorism operations over that same time period: Samir Khan, ‘Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi, and Jude Kenan Mohammed. These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States.

What “not specifically targeted by the United States” means is unclear, but the concept fits in well with what is known about signature strikes, which may target large groups of people based on suspicious activity or perceived associations with “known terrorists.”

“Signature strikes in Pakistan were killing a large number of terrorist suspects, even when C.I.A. analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence,” reported the New York Times last year. The Times revealed that there has been substantial disagreement in Washington regarding the standards being applied for these attacks:

But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.

Obama’s speech did not address the specific concerns over signature strikes, skirted the issue of the attacks on Awlaki’s 16-year-old son and glossed over the issue of innocent civilian deaths. Noting that “there is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports,” he did however acknowledge that “U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars.”

Nevertheless, Obama claimed that the strikes comply with international law, citing the “Authorization to Use Military Force” that Congress adopted in the days after 9/11.

“Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces,” Obama said. “We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

Claiming that the war is broadly in compliance with international law, Obama failed to address the many specific concerns that have been raised by international organizations and officials regarding drone warfare.

Testifying to the UN the Human Rights Council’s following her visit to Pakistan last summer, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay criticized the use of drone strikes by the United States, noting in particular that they “raise questions about compliance with distinction and proportionality.”

“I also expressed serious concern over the continuing use of armed drones for targeted attacks,” she said,

in particular because it is unclear that all persons targeted are combatants or directly participating in hostilities. The Secretary-General has expressed concern about the lack of transparency on the circumstances in which drones are used, noting that these attacks raise questions about compliance with distinction and proportionality. I remind States of their international obligation to take all necessary precautions to ensure that attacks comply with international law. I urge them to conduct investigations that are transparent, credible and independent, and provide victims with effective remedies.

A 2010 United Nations report stated that a targeted killing outside of an actual battlefield “is almost never likely to be legal.” It rejected “pre-emptive self-defense” as a justification for killing terrorism suspects far from combat zones.

“This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defense goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN Charter,” said Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. “If invoked by other states, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”

As the 2010 UN report states: “Whether or not a specific targeted killing is legal depends on the context in which it is conducted: whether in armed conflict, outside armed conflict, or in relation to the interstate use of force.”

Under the rules of international humanitarian law, the report points out, “targeted killing is only lawful when the target is a ‘combatant’ or ‘fighter’ or, in the case of a civilian, only for such time as the person ‘directly participates in hostilities.’”

In addition, the killing must be militarily necessary, the use of force must be proportionate so that any anticipated military advantage is considered in light of the expected harm to civilians in the vicinity, and everything feasible must be done to prevent mistakes and minimize harm to civilians. These standards apply regardless of whether the armed conflict is between States (an international armed conflict) or between a State and a non-state armed group (non-international armed conflict), including alleged terrorists.

Since the U.S. drone strikes are being carried out far from any battlefield, it is inconceivable that they conform with the “military necessity” requirement under international law, a question that Obama sidestepped in his speech, along with so many other issues.

Obama’s commission launched with earlier recommendations on U.S. election administration largely forgotten

More than six months since Election Night 2012 when President Obama stated that “we have to fix that” in a reference to long lines at polling places, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration was finally launched yesterday with the appointment of ten commission members, including two co-chairs.

With a limited mandate to shorten lines at polling places, promote the efficient conduct of elections, and provide better access to the polls for all voters, the Commission will present a final report to the president within six months of its first public meeting, expected to be held next month.

Headed by Co-Chairs Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg – a Democrat and a Republican – the commissioners are “experts in election administration, policy and procedures, or leaders from customer service-oriented businesses and industry,” according to the Commission’s official press release.

“The President’s expectation is clear,” said Bauer. “The Commission is charged with developing recommendations based on the best information available for administrative practices that afford voters the opportunity to cast ballots without undue delay and improve their overall experience.”

Election 2012 – like many U.S. elections in recent years – was marred by long lines in several states, especially Florida, Ohio and Virginia. The causes were typically a combination of broken-down equipment, insufficient training of poll workers, and an organized GOP effort to roll back early voting days, which increased the volume of voters on Election Day.

Yesterday’s announcement of the Commission’s composition received a lukewarm response from election reform advocates, some of whom pointed out that bold action is needed to tackle the U.S.’s many electoral problems, and the appointment of another commission – especially one with such a limited mandate – is anything but bold action.

“A number of election experts have expressed doubts that the panel will have much impact because the goals are modest,” reported NPR. Academics, activists, election officials and international observers have been studying ways to improve election administration for years, and it’s unclear what, if anything, new the commission can add to this knowledge in six months.

In a statement, League of Women Voters President Elizabeth McNamara lamented that Obama’s presidential commission is “a weak response to a big problem.” She expressed disappointment in Obama’s response to improving U.S. elections to date and reiterated LWV’s calls for “bold changes like those suggested in our four point plan to make elections free, fair and accessible.” Specifically, LWV wants to see secure online voter registration, permanent and portable statewide voter registration, expanded early voting, and improved polling place management.

Other election reform advocates were more optimistic about the new Commission, however.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center, which has extensively documented the causes of long lines at polls and advocated various solutions, said in a statement:

We are delighted the president’s voting commission will soon be up and running. The commission will spotlight the urgent need to improve our election system to ensure it works well for all eligible Americans. We urge the commission to recommend bold solutions to modernize voting. America needs to upgrade how we register voters, when we vote, and how we manage polling places. We hope this will be a great step forward to improve the way America runs elections and ensure the system is free, fair, and accessible.

Rick Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine and publisher of the Election Law Blog, explained that the commission is seeking to avoid contentious issues such as general voting rights in order to keep the panel from being bogged down in partisan squabbling.

“While including voting-rights advocates might make sense in the abstract, the Commission is walking a difficult political line to stay above the partisan fray as much as possible,” Hasen said. “Including voting-rights advocates would have led those on the right to call for more balance.”

McNamara, however, disagreed. “If they’re not talking about secure online voter registration that’s available to everybody, not just those with driver’s licenses; if they’re not talking about early voting; if they’re not talking about polling place resources; if they’re not talking about permanent and portable voter registration, then we just don’t believe that they’re going to be talking about the issues that really cause the lines on Election Day,” she said.

It could also be noted that the long waiting times on Election Day are really just the tip of the iceberg of an electoral system plagued by partisan manipulation and racial bias. As NAACP Head Benjamin Jealous has called it, “the hyperpartisanization” of election administration has enabled “a strategy to suppress the participation of working-class people, of senior citizens, of students, who tend to vote for the Democrats, by making it unbearable.”

He noted in an interview earlier this year that in the secretary of states’ and county clerks offices around the country, there are “people coming in with a real, you know, partisan purpose in what should be a very kind of democratic—small-d—mission.”

Jealous said that in Florida alone, long Election Day lines around the state may have turned away more than 200,000 frustrated would-be voters who gave up and went home before they cast ballots. According a report published this month by the American Bar Association, there was a clear racial and political bias in the average waiting times, with blacks, Hispanics and Democrats facing significantly longer waits. According to the ABA’s data, black voters experienced an average 23.3 minute wait and Hispanic voters experienced an 18.7 minute wait, compared to an 11.6 minute wait by white voters. Similarly, strong Democratic voters had a significantly longer average waiting time (15.6 minutes) than strong Republican voters (11.4 minutes).

“And this is the, if you will, the most basic, most rudimentary form of voter suppression,” according to Ben Jealous. “It’s—what we’ve seen since 2000 is, whether it’s secretaries of state or whether it’s county clerks, you know, the folks who are running it in their county, it’s become very politicized, and folks really making, in many cases, explicitly political decisions about where they even put these machines, who gets a few machines and long lines, who gets a lot of machines and no lines, trying to skew the outcome.”

The root problem here, of course, is that partisan interests are given free reign over election administration in the United States. From the national level to the state level to the local level, elected representatives and partisan hacks manipulate and game the system to ensure preferred electoral outcomes, in a system generally out of line with international electoral standards.

As the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights rather mildly put it in its final report on the 2012 U.S. election, released last February:

General elections are administered at the state level and there is no federal election management body with oversight responsibilities. On the state level, administrative authority is vested in the respective state secretary or state election board. However, the greater part of election administration is typically delegated to county or lower-level election officials, resulting in a wide variety of electoral practices across the country.

Overall, the election administration performed their duties in a professional and transparent manner and enjoyed the trust of the majority of stakeholders. The composition of election administration bodies varies across states. While some senior election officials are appointed, others are elected. Election administration bodies are often partisan, although 19 states and the District of Columbia provide bipartisan or independent bodies. Very few OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors raised concerns about the impartiality of county election officials. However, some county-level election supervisors ran on party tickets for re-election in 2012, raising possible conflicts of interest.

In order to avoid these conflicts of interest, the OSCE recommended that “if senior election officials at state and lower levels are elected, the states could consider holding such elections in non-federal election years, to avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interest.” Further, “there should be a national body with sufficient resources and outreach capacity to provide guidance on election administration and serve as a central clearinghouse to develop good electoral practices. Congress should ensure that such a body has the necessary financial and human resources to fulfil these duties in an effective manner.”

In its preliminary post-election statement issued in November 2012, the OSCE reminded U.S. authorities of the 87 recommendations of the 2005 report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform, the so-called Carter-Baker Commission, most of which have never been implemented.

The Carter-Baker Commission’s most important recommendation was for the United States to move toward nonpartisan election administration. Carter-Baker recommended in particular that states strip election responsibilities from partisan elected secretaries of state, placing them instead in the hands of professional election administrators appointed by governors and approved by a supermajority vote of state legislators.

Implementing this one recommendation from the final report of the 2005 Carter-Baker Commission would likely have a much greater impact in ensuring fair elections in the U.S. than any number of limited recommendations that might emerge from Obama’s newly appointed commission.

The problem, however, is that moving to a truly nonpartisan method of election administration could actually open up the U.S. electoral system to multi-party competition – including providing a level playing field for independent parties such as the Greens and the Libertarians – and this is the last thing that the two-party duopoly in Washington wants.

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Mounting alarm over media crackdown in the United States

free-pressAs the U.S. government’s crackdown on the press intensifies, international organizations and media freedom advocates are expressing growing alarm over what is seen as a systematic attempt to muzzle journalists and deny the public the right to unimpeded access to information.

Following last week’s news that the U.S. Justice Department had seized records for 20 telephone lines of journalists at the Associated Press, the largest and oldest news organization in the world, the reaction was intense. The AP had not been informed in advance of the prosecutors’ actions, nor did the Justice Department initiate a notice and negotiation process, leading the AP to send an angry letter to Attorney General Holder about the spying, stating in part,

There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.

That the Department undertook this unprecedented step without providing any notice to the AP, and without taking any steps to narrow the scope of its subpoenas to matters actually relevant to an ongoing investigation, is particularly troubling.

The U.S.-based NGO Freedom House issued a strongly worded statement expressing “deep concern” over the revelation of spying and called on Congress to revive a federal “shield law” that would provide journalists with a measure of protection from prosecutors’ demands for information.

“For some time we have been concerned about the administration’s over-zealous pursuit of alleged leakers and the efforts to force the testimony of journalists,” said David J. Kramer, Freedom House president. “Preserving secrecy in national security deliberations is important, but this scatter-shot intrusion into the news-gathering affairs of the Associated Press is truly disturbing. What we’re now seeing is an entirely new level of government involvement in the affairs of a free media.”

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, said she was distressed over the revelations of government surveillance of the press, and called for an investigation.

“There is simply no justification for such a broad violation of these reporters’ constitutional rights,” Mijatović said. As an official with the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which counts the United States as one of its 57 member states, Mijatovic also issued a letter directly to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“There may be occasions when, in the interest of security, a limited intrusion on reporters’ activities, judicially authorized, may be justified, but the sheer scope and breadth of this action is simply a deprivation of basic constitutional rights,” Mijatović wrote in the letter. “The action also calls into question the ability of sources to talk to reporters without fear of government eavesdropping.”

There is no indication that the State Department has responded in any way to the direct criticism from the OSCE.

Following this controversy, a new revelation emerged over the weekend that a federal agent was granted a warrant in 2010 to search the email account of Fox News correspondent James Rosen on suspicion that the reporter had violated the 1917 Espionage Act by soliciting classified information from a State Department official.

This previously undisclosed development, which the FAS Project on Government Secrecy called “a startling expansion of the Obama Administration’s war on leaks,” was first reported in the Washington Post on May 19.

The search warrant was issued in the course of an investigation into the suspected leak of classified information allegedly committed by Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former State Department contractor, who was indicted in August 2010.

“I believe there is probable cause to conclude that the contents of the wire and electronic communications pertaining to the SUBJECT ACCOUNT are evidence, fruits and instrumentalities of criminal violations of 18 U.S.C. 793 (Unauthorized Disclosure of National Defense Information), and that there is probable cause to believe that the Reporter has committed or is committing a violation of section 793(d), as an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator, to which the materials relate,” wrote FBI agent Reginald B. Reyes in a May 28, 2010 application for a search warrant.

As Steven Aftergood of the FAS Project on Government Secrecy explained, “the Reyes affidavit all but eliminates the traditional distinction in classified leak investigations between sources, who are bound by a non-disclosure agreement, and reporters, who are protected by the First Amendment as long as they do not commit a crime.”

The affidavit also highlights the government’s ability to monitor activity within classified networks with a fine mesh, and to correlate document downloads with external communications.

“So far, the FBI’s investigation has revealed in excess of 95 individuals, in addition to Mr. Kim, who accessed the Intelligence Report [containing the information reported by Mr. Rosen] on the date of the June 2009 article and prior to its publication. To date, however, the FBI’s investigation has not revealed any other individual, other than Mr. Kim, who both accessed the Intelligence Report and who also had contact with the Reporter on the date of publication of the June 2009 article,” the affidavit noted.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has advocated on behalf of new media organizations such as WikiLeaks, drew a parallel between the ongoing campaign against Julian Assange’s right to gather and publish classified information in the public interest, and the new revelations of assaults against the Associated Press and Fox News for doing the same. “Under the law, the AP, Fox News, and WikiLeaks are no different (a fact that even the government argues),” Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation pointed out today. “If one falls, the others will not be far behind.”

The press freedom advocate lamented that many journalists and mainstream media organizations remained silent when WikiLeaks first came under attack by the Justice Department in early 2011.

“That disappointing silence left open the possibility that the Justice Department could use those same tactics against others in the future,” wrote Timm. “And unfortunately now it’s clear: virtually every move made by the Justice Department against WikiLeaks has now also been deployed on mainstream US journalists.”

Just as the intimidation of WikiLeaks has done, the case raises concerns about stifling effect of these investigations on a critical element of press freedom: the exchange of information between reporters and their sources.

“Search warrants like these have a severe chilling effect on the free flow of important information to the public,” said First Amendment lawyer Charles Tobin, who has represented the Associated Press, but not in the current case. “That’s a very dangerous road to go down.”

By chilling the flow of information as the Obama administration appears to be systematically doing in its attacks on media organizations and government leakers, the U.S. government may be violating not only the First Amendment to the Constitution, but also its international obligations.

As Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states,

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This obligation is reiterated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S.  ratified in 1992. In its general comment on the importance of this provision of the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee of the UN noted in 2011,

A free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society for the ensuring of freedom of opinion and expression and the enjoyment of other Covenant rights. It constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. The Covenant embraces a right to receive information on the part of the media as a basis on which they can carry out their function. The free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion. Pursuant to article 19, the public also has the right to receive information as a corollary to the specific function of any journalist to impart information.

Just last week, the U.S. government reaffirmed its commitment to these principles at the OSCE media freedom seminar in Warsaw.

“Underlying our OSCE commitments on media freedom are Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights and our obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act to respect the fundamental freedom of expression,” said the State Department’s Sabeena Rajpal, representing the U.S. delegation at the seminar. “This fundamental freedom is the birthright of every human being; it is inherent in the individual and not for governments to dole out or deny as they see fit.”

“Our OSCE commitments require participating States to ensure that their laws will conform to their international legal obligations,” she added.

If the United States is serious about these commitments, it would do well to halt its attacks on press freedom. If the attacks continue, the U.S. finds itself in increasing danger of becoming a full-blown “totalitarian security surveillance state,” in the words of former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges.

Growing concern over human rights crisis as Guantanamo hunger strike marks 100 days

The United States is coming under intense international criticism for its increasingly troubling record on torture and impunity, indefinite detention and the ongoing travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay.

As a hunger strike at Guantanamo involving over 100 prisoners enters its 100th day, calls are growing for the United States to end its method of force feeding that the UN has described as torture and for President Obama to finally live up to his longstanding promise to close the prison.

On Friday May 17, human rights groups and activists will mark the 100th day of the hunger strike by delivering over 300,000 petitions to the White House urging the president to take action. Hundreds of U.S. activists have already joined a hunger strike in solidarity with the Guantanamo prisoners. Actions are also being held outside the United States, including one in London on Saturday May 18 in which protesters will be creating a “murder scene” outside the U.S. Embassy to draw awareness to the potentially fatal consequences of the hunger strike and the U.S. government’s responsibility for it.

UN officials have also become increasingly vocal in their denunciations of the Obama administration’s policies, with El Hadji Malick Sow, head of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, calling the U.S. policy of indefinite detention “a flagrant violation of international law.” Earlier this month, Sow explained that dozens of detainees are already cleared for release but continue to languish in the prison alongside those designated for indefinite detention without trial.

“Of those,” Sow said, “56 are Yemeni nationals who have been denied release based solely on their nationality and on the political situation in Yemen, which constitutes a clear violation of the principle of non-discrimination and renders their detention arbitrary.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, added, “At Guantánamo, the indefinite detention of individuals, most of whom have not been charged, goes far beyond a minimally reasonable period of time and causes a state of suffering, stress, fear and anxiety, which in itself constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”

Drawing depicting the agony of force-feeding by Matt Rota

Drawing depicting the agony of force-feeding by Matt Rota

Many of the striking detainees are being force-fed a nutritional supplement through tubes inserted in their noses, a practice considered torture by many experts. As Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious-disease specialist in New York City, describes the process,

The hardware used in force feeding is very cheap and basic, though as with all medical equipment, there are ever more fancy versions. The procedure is this: after squirting a lubricant into one nostril, a two-foot long clear plastic tube of varying caliber, usually about as thick around as fat pencil, is snaked through the nose, down the back of the throat, and into the stomach. An X-ray is then performed to make certain the tube is placed correctly into the stomach or small intestine and not into the lung. Once confirmed, a liquid diet can be delivered and up to 2,000 calories a day provided—more than enough to keep a person alive.

During my training, I placed countless feeding tubes (and larger hoses to pump stomachs). Without question, it is the most painful procedure doctors routinely inflict on conscious patients. The nose—as anyone knows who ever has received a stinger from an errant baseball—has countless pain fibers. Some patients may scream and gasp as the tube is introduced; the tear ducts well up and overflow; the urge to sneeze or cough or vomit is often uncontrollable. A paper cup of water with a bent straw is placed before the frantic and miserable patient and all present implore him to Sip! Sip! in hopes of facilitating tube passage past the glottis and into the esophagus and stomach.

The procedure is, in a word, barbaric.

One detainee, Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, in an op-ed published by the New York Times last month, offered an account of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this barbaric procedure:

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.

I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.

UN Special Rapporteur on health Anand Grover has stressed that “health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike.”

She added that it is also not acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have voluntarily decided to go on a hunger strike. The American Medical Association has also condemned such force-feedings as a violation of “core ethical values of the medical profession.”

On May 13, a coalition of 20 human rights organizations sent Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel a letter stating unqualified opposition to the ongoing force-feeding. As the letter makes clear, the Guantanamo force-feeding procedures constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in violation of international norms:

Because of force-feeding’s invasive nature, the World Medical Association (WMA), the preeminent international organization in the field of medical ethics and practice, has repeatedly condemned force-feeding of competent prisoners. The WMA’s Tokyo Declaration, adopted in 1975, states that doctors shall respect a competent prisoner’s right to refuse artificial feeding. And, in its Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers, adopted in 1991 and revised in 2006 in large part due to developments in Guantánamo, the WMA states that “[f]orcible feeding is never ethically acceptable. Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Force-feeding as used in Guantánamo violates Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which bar cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment, the coalition also points out.

Nevertheless, 40 additional military medical personnel have been sent to Guantanamo to assist with the controversial procedure.

But the torturous force-feedings are not the only way that the American prison guards are routinely tormenting their detainees.

One of the hunger strikers, British citizen Shaker Aamer, recently described in an open letter the abuse he is suffering at the hands of the Guantanamo prison authorities since the hunger strike began:

My treatment was bad before, but since the beginning of April I have been treated with particular venom. They started by taking my medical things. I had an extra blanket to lessen my rheumatism, but that was soon gone. My backbrace went at the same time. The pressure socks I had to keep the build-up of water down did not last long. Then they came for my toothbrush. Next, my sheet was taken, along with my shoes. My legal documents vanished soon after, leaving me only my kids’ drawings on the wall. They were the last to go.

And now I am left alone. Since 8am Monday, April 15, I have had nothing, not even my flip-flops. I am meant to sleep on concrete, and when I say alone, I mean alone in a very lonely world. The bean hole is what they call the small hatch on the door through which they normally pass my food. Recently they have started using a padlock to close it all day long. The OIC [Officer In Charge] keeps the key so no one else can open it.

The fact that the U.S. prison guards continue to torture these helpless detainees is particularly troubling considering the fact that the remaining men Guantanamo are not considered a threat to the United States. As Ben Emmerson, the Special Rapporteur on countering terrorism, recently explained: “All relevant security-related Government agencies or authorities have expressly certified that those detainees do not represent a threat to US security.”

Yet, in a nightmarish Kafkaesque and Orwellian situation, they remain locked up in a state of legal limbo, with little hope of ever seeing their loved ones again. As Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, explained in the New York Times,

I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day.

Where is my government? I will submit to any “security measures” they want in order to go home, even though they are totally unnecessary.

I will agree to whatever it takes in order to be free. I am now 35. All I want is to see my family again and to start a family of my own.

In the midst of this hunger strike, a high-level U.S. task force last month issued a bombshell report on detainee treatment which concluded, without reservation, that the United States has engaged in a systematic policy of torture in the years since 9/11.

“The Report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment” is the product of more than two years of research, analysis and deliberation by the Task Force members and staff. It is considered the most comprehensive, bipartisan investigation into the detention and treatment of suspected terrorists yet published, providing painstaking details about the past and current treatment of suspected terrorists detained by the U.S. government during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and the CIA’s secret “black site” prisons.

“Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” the report reads. “This finding, offered without reservation, is not based on any impressionistic approach to the issue. … Instead, this conclusion is grounded in a thorough and detailed examination of what constitutes torture in many contexts, notably historical and legal.”

The United States may not declare a nation guilty of engaging in torture and then exempt itself from being so labeled for similar if not identical conduct, the task force pointed out, noting that in some cases the torture has been approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

In a section on Guantanamo, the report described the prison camp as “a major testing ground for the government’s policy of engaging in highly coercive interrogation techniques, practices designed to visit torment on detainees in the expectation or hope they would give up important and usable intelligence to help fight the new style of war in which the United States found itself.”

In other words, Guantanamo is a torture camp. “It was the principal place where the government’s mostly unannounced shift in policy from detention for prosecution to detention for interrogation occurred.”

Rather than being brought quickly before some tribunal, detainees would be held at length for another purpose — interrogation. The view of the detainees as an intelligence resource to be mined contributed to the rapid deterioration of the human rights situation in the torture camp and to the extreme techniques deemed acceptable by authorities.

Now, 11 years on, the detainees have had enough and in an act of desperation have engaged in the only recourse they have left, to refuse food. But rather than address their legitimate grievances or work for a political solution to the crisis, the Pentagon and the Obama administration have opted instead to increase the level of torture used against the detainees.

It is a national disgrace and a human rights catastrophe of the highest order.

To demand justice for the Guantanamo prisoners, visit Close Guantanamo, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Code PinkAmnesty International and Cage Prisoners.

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