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March 3, 2006

Covering the Government's Empty Promises on Torture

Sometimes I wonder if we at TNS as too pessimistic in our coverage of the government’s actions, too willing to see the glass as half-empty, instead of half-full. Such was the case when we reported back in December that the so-called McCain "torture ban," hailed as an instant fix for the torture scandals embroiling America, might not be all it was cracked up to be.

Back then, TNS staff journalist Michelle Chen highlighted the gnawing concerns of some civil rights groups that companion amendments, shoved into the bill to placate the White House, might trump some of the very protections that McCain’s law purported to establish...

Though many support the spirit of the amendment, approved by the Senate in October and by the House last week, several civil liberties organizations contend that political jockeying has produced legislation that would likely abet abuse, rather than deter it.

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has led litigation to defend the rights of hundreds of detainees, is among the most vocal critics. Ratner told The NewStandard that legislators have "left the people at Guantánamo possibly subject to the very thing they’ve tried to prohibit. They gave with one hand and took with the other."

Now we have learned that the worst fears of civil liberties groups may finally be coming true. On Wednesday, we reported on a case brought by Guantánamo detainee Mohammed Bawazir, who alleges that United States soldiers holding him captive violated the torture ban just weeks after it was enacted. Bawazir was engaged in a hunger strike for nearly six months, saying, according to his attorneys, that he’d rather die than continue enduring the miserable conditions of his confinement. In response to his refusal to eat, soldiers had been force-feeding him through a nasal tube for months. But in January, his captors’ tactics allegedly grew harsher:

According to the complaint, soldiers began removing the nasal tube between feedings and insisted on reinserting it at each force-feeding. They also left him strapped to the dangerous chair for up to two hours at a time, the maximum allowed by the manufacturer. And, the complaint also alleged, the soldiers poured large amounts of liquids into Bawazir’s stomach and then refused to allow him to go to the bathroom, causing cramping, vomiting, diarrhea – eventually forcing Bawazir to urinate and defecate on himself.

McCain’s bill, the Detainee Treatment Act, declares, "…no individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

Nevertheless, government lawyers argued in court yesterday that the Act does not apply to Bawazir—simply because he is in Guantánamo. But how could that be, you ask? Doesn’t the law say "regardless of nationality or physical location?" Yes, it does. But an amendment, introduced by Senators Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Lindsey Graham (R-North Carolina) and passed alongside the torture ban, specifically restricts Gitmo detainees’ access to US courts. Thus, as the Washington Post reported:

Justice Department lawyers argued that even if the tactics were considered in violation of McCain's language, detainees at Guantánamo would have no recourse to challenge them in court.

The Post also quoted Human Rights Watch spokesperson Tom Malinowski as saying "Unfortunately, I think the government's right; it's a correct reading of the law…The law says you can't torture detainees at Guantánamo, but it also says you can't enforce that law in the courts."

So, there we have it. It might have felt nice to have taken an uncharacteristically optimistic tack and reported that the government was finally dealing with the systemic brutality of its international prison system. But now, it turns out the glass-half-full viewpoint taken by our corporate counterparts last year has come up empty.


Thomas Thomson: Covering the Government's Empty Promises on Torture

I suppose that there is no reason to assume that the Bush administration's promises on torture would be any more valid than any of its other promises. Yet, Bush/Cheney et al remain unchecked and unchallenged. The Senate reconfirms the Patriot Act and remains essentially silent about the NSA surveillance programs which although illegal continues unabated. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, civil war rages in Iraq, the Taliban and war lords govern the Afghani countryside, Osama remains at large, the only nation ever to use a nuclear weapon (not once but twice) plays morally superior to nations who have every reason to fear that same premptive nuclear power and nothing seems to change and the moral outrage which should be coursing through our nation is a mere whimper. The glass is not only have empty but leaking very badly.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.