Peanut Butter: The Spirit of the Geneva Conventions

Before moving on to Iraq’s approaching election, some news from the increasingly-illuminated world of “terrorism” detentions.

The Guardian is reporting that twelve detainees, all foreign nationals held under a controversial British anti-terror law, will see a change in their status, following a court ruling in December that found that the conditions of their detention were “disproportionate and discriminatory.” Nine of the men were imprisoned at two maximum-security prisons, which rights activists had named “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay."

It’s hard to tell whether this status-alteration is good or bad, though the article seems to suggest that the changes, ordered by new Home Secretary Charles Clarke, is essentially a watered-down version of imprisonment. The men will now be subject to a series of “control orders,” including house arrest, curfews, tagging, and restricted phone and internet communication.

Also, four former Guantanamo Bay inmates returned to England last week, where they were arrested upon arrival for questioning by local police. The Guardian reports the comments of Feroz Abbasi’s lawyer, who said his client was “repeatedly injected with an unknown substance by his US captors.” Abbasi was held for three years at the prison in Cuba, his arrest in Afghanistan in December 2001. The London police commissioner said unless new evidence emerged against the four, they would be released.

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Human rights activists and lawyers are calling for the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and for the remaining inmates to be charged with crimes, or released from custody.

Then there’s the strange protest/mass suicide story. According to a military spokesperson, the attempts by two dozen detainees to kill themselves over an eight-day period in August 2003 was just a “coordinated effort to disrupt camp operations and challenge a new group of security guards.” In military – and perhaps medical – terminology, there are “self-harm incidents”, which are different from suicide attempts. In this case, the self-harm attempts included prisoners trying to hang or strangle themselves.

No one succeeded, but still – isn’t there a less dangerous way to cause self-harm?

A long article by Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe on the episode is well worth a look. He reveals that the military is building a “greatly improved facility” for the approximately 8 percent of detainees with “serious mental illnesses.” The number of detainees is thought to be between 545 and 558, so the question is, were these forty or so guys in the same mental state before they arrived in Cuba? The article reveals other building plans, including “permanent housing for detainees with more communal living areas for those who may be kept for decades in this oceanfront compound.” A senior defense official tells Savage that another planned new wing of the prison, which will feature large group recreation areas, is intended to provide “a better quality of life in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions.”

Savage spends a lot of time with the new management of the interrogation prison, including Steve Rodriguez, who has run the interrogations since June 2003, and claims that all the abuse and torture described in recently publicized FBI memos occurred before he got there.

Rodriguez claims that he has “no access to medical files,” countering the claims of this recent report (abstract only). He does admit to Savage that he “sometimes makes requests for information, such as whether a detainee is allergic to peanuts before providing peanut butter sandwiches as an inducement to talk.”

Rodriguez is a great interview. Here are his final thoughts.

In an interrogation trailer nearby, Rodriguez discussed the allegations in the FBI memos, such as one in which an agent recounted seeing a detainee wrapped in an Israeli flag while under sensory assault from loud music. "What I have angst over is the fact that -- and I'm not condoning any of this -- there are many, many things that go on all over the world in many countries. And there are all kinds of true torture, abuse, even people's heads being cut off on television," he said. "And you and I are talking about an Israeli flag. I'll end it with that."

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