[There] may be instances arising in the future where persons are wrongfully detained in places unknown to those who would apply for habeas corpus in their behalf [so a U.S. court can determine if they’re legally held]. . . . These dangers may seem unreal in the United States. But the experience of less fortunate countries should serve as a warning . . . —Ahrens v. Clark, U.S. Supreme Court, 1948, Justice Wiley Blount Rutledge dissenting
Often they were led away in the middle of the night, with bags over their heads and no explanation. Many people have said that when they asked soldiers where their family members were being taken, they were told to shut up. A few hundred women have also been detained. And complicating the families’ searches, there are several major prisons and hundreds of smaller jails and bases across Iraq. —Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times, March 7, 2004
It was the CIA that first asked Donald Rumsfeld in late 2001 for guidance in techniques for interrogating purported terrorists who were hard to crack. There followed the 2002 Justice Department and the 2003 Pentagon advisories telling interrogators, not only those with the CIA, how to torture prisoners, thereby extracting information while bypassing American law and international treaties we have signed.
However, amid all the hundreds of pages hurriedly released by the Bush administration in June as a cover-up for those memoranda, there are no references to any official regulations applying to the thousands of prisoners being vigorously questioned in the many American secret interrogation centers around the world, because the government does not admit they exist. (See my column last week, “The Ghost Prisoners,” July 21-27.)
But on May 6, the Federation of American Scientists—as noted by Human Rights First—told the Information Security Oversight Office that “The executive order that governs national security classification states that ‘In no case shall information be classified in order to . . . conceal violations of law.’ ”
We already know, thanks to a low-level whistle-blower, soldier-specialist Joseph Darby, of egregious violations of American and international law at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But we have no idea what is happening to the huge number of ghost prisoners for whom no American captors are accountable. They all have disappeared.
If the Supreme Court is to be these prisoners’ last resort for their re-entry from invisibility, the Court must mandate, if Congress doesn’t, what Human Rights First emphasizes in its report “Ending Secret Detentions”:
“What we are calling for is an official accounting—to Congress and to the International Committee of the Red Cross—of the number, nationality, legal status, and place of detention of all those the United States currently holds.
“We ask that all of these places of detention be acknowledged and open to inspection by the ICRC, and that the names of all detainees be made available promptly to the ICRC and to others with a legitimate interest in this information.. . . Trust [in the president] is plainly no longer enough.”
Although we know something of the roundup of detainees in Iraq, how little their families of them know is underlined in a March 7, 2004, New York Times report by Jeffrey Gettleman about those who have also disappeared.
“Sabrea Kudi cannot find her son. He was taken by American soldiers nearly nine months ago, and there has been no trace of him since. ‘I’m afraid he’s dead,’ Ms. Kudi said.
“Lara Waad cannot find her husband. He was arrested in a raid, too. ‘I had God—and I had him,’ she said. ‘Now I am alone.’ . . .
“Ms. Kudi, whose son, Muhammad, was detained nearly nine months ago, has been to Abu Ghraib more than 20 times. The huge prison is the center of her continuing odyssey through military bases, jails, assistance centers, hospitals and morgues. She said she had been shoved by soldiers and chased by dogs.
” ‘If they want to kill me, kill me,’ Ms. Kudi said. ‘Just give me my son.’ ”
Human Rights First’s report ends, “U.S. policies that promote secrecy and lack of accountability have encouraged authoritarian regimes around the globe to commit abuses in the name of counterterrorism.”
Among the examples cited: “in Zimbabwe (where President Mugabe, while voicing agreement with the Bush administration’s policies in the ‘war on terrorism,’ declared foreign journalists and others critical of his regime ‘terrorists’ and suppressed their work).”
And “in China (where the Chinese government charged a peaceful political activist with terrorism and sentenced him to life in prison, leading the U.S. State Department to note ‘with particular concern the charge of terrorism in this case, given the apparent lack of evidence [and] due process.’ ” The Chinese Communist leadership must have snickered at this rebuke from the Bush administration).
Another example: “in Eritrea (where the governing party arrested 11 political opponents, has held them incommunicado and without charge, and defended its actions as being consistent with United States actions after September 11).” (Emphasis is added.)
While Congress and our courts ignore our own ghost prisoners, the Associated Press reported on July 13: “The International Red Cross . . . fears U.S. officials are holding terror suspects secretly in locations across the world. The Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare require the United States to give the Red Cross access to prisoners of war and other detainees.”
How long before the Senate Judiciary Committee demands that John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld reveal the names and locations of those thousands of ghost prisoners? Does Kerry care?
See you in a month.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 20, 2004