Anatomy of a Murder


In the introduction to the recently released 532-page Human Rights Watch World Report 2006 (available in book form from Seven Stories Press), executive director Kenneth Roth writes:

“The U.S. government’s use and defense of torture and inhumane treatment [of prisoners] played the largest role in undermining Washington’s ability to promote human rights. . . . Any discussion of detainee abuse in 2005 must begin with the United States, not because it is the worst violator but because it is the most influential. . . . The widely publicized abuse at Abu Ghraib paralleled similar if not worse abuse in Afghanistan, in Guantánamo, elsewhere in Iraq, and in the chain of secret detention facilities where the U.S. government holds its “high-value” detainees.”

The January 18 reponse from the White House to this charge was utterly, shamelessly predictable. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan, rejecting this description of the United States, proclaimed:

“The United States does more than any country in the world to advance freedom and promote freedom and human rights.”

What this administration actually does, proclaiming its devotion to human rights, is to exemplify George Orwell’s truth, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Six days after the White House congratulated itself on George W. Bush’s human rights record, there was this story in The Washington Post:

“A military jury in Colorado issued a reprimand last night to an Army interrogator [19-year veteran Lewis E. Welshofer] who was convicted of negligent homicide for using an aggressive technique on an Iraqi general who died during questioning. Jurors decided not to impose any prison sentence for what originally was charged as a murder.”

The corpse was Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush, “a high-ranking Saddam Hussein loyalist who was believed to have engineered insurgent attacks in northern Iraq.”

Army officer Welshofer, interrogating the prisoner on November 26, 2003, at Qaim, Iraq, shoved him into a sleeping bag and sat on his chest before “waterboarding” him to simulate drowning. No information was obtained, because the prisoner stopped breathing.

Shortly before being stuffed into the sleeping bag, General Mowhoush—as Josh White reported in the January 25 Washington Post—“had been beaten by Iraqi paramilitaries code-named ‘Scorpions,’ who were working with the CIA, according to classified documents.”

In the January 23 New York Times, Eric Schmitt added to this anatomy of a murder: “The widely publicized incident has drawn attention from human rights groups as one of the worst instances of abuse against detainees in American custody.” As for the preliminary beating of the prisoner, Schmitt noted that at the trial of interrogator Welshofer, “the CIA involvement” in the beating “remained largely unaddressed.”

That’s no surprise, but in the same report there is this intriguing footnote to the Bush administration’s resounding human rights record: “Mr. Welshofer and another interrogator designed the sleeping bag techniques as a last resort, believing that it would create a claustrophobic effect on a prisoner. . . . A small hole was cut in the bottom of the sleeping bag to allow the detainee to breathe.”

I guess it just wasn’t a big enough hole.

Lest you think Welshofer received only a reprimand for his “aggressive technique,” the Associated Press reported that he has been fined $6,000 with restrictions to his barracks, work, and place of worship for 60 days.

After the sentence was pronounced, the AP continued, “soldiers in the gallery, many of whom had worked with Mr. Welshofer and who had testified as character witnesses, broke into applause.”

The son of the murdered prisoner, Mohammed Mowhoush, did not applaud. In a conference call with several reporters organized by David Danzig of Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) and reported by Josh White in the January 25 Washington Post, the murdered man’s son said of the American officer who executed his father, “His punishment is not justice.”

The son also revealed that when he was 15 he and his three brothers were snatched from their Qaim home on October 27, 2003, during a raid by U.S. soldiers’ helicopters and armed vehicles in search of their father. The U.S. troops threatened that if the father didn’t give himself up, the boys would be sent to Guantánamo. As Josh White writes: “Arresting someone to entice relatives to turn themselves in is considered by human rights organizations to be a form of hostage taking. It is considered illegal in wartime, but military investigative documents reveal it occurred in Iraq.”

Interrogated for days without charges, the son was stripped of his clothes, had cold water poured on him, and was twisted into painful “stress” positions. Then he was taken into a room where his father was being assaulted. Yelling at the father, the guards said if he did not tell the truth, his son Mohammed would be executed. (Hussein’s torturers used to use that technique. )

By then, his father couldn’t respond. “He was tired,” his son remembers, “and I saw wounds on his body. He was tired because they beat him so much, they made a lot of pain on him, and he didn’t even talk to me.”

David Danzig, head of Human Rights First’s End Torture Now campaign told me, “The sentence given the low-level officer who suffocated this son’s father suggests the U.S. is not cracking down on the chain of command. The senior military leaders, and the president, are not being held accountable.”

But around the world, and here, the president is no longer able to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable. The mounting evidence of what is being done to our “detainees” skewers this Bush pledge in his January 26 press conference: “No American will be allowed to torture another human being anywhere in the world!”[Emphasis added.]

Will there be enough of us to move Congress to force the president to act inside—not in contempt of—the law? Or am I fantasizing?