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     Volume 8 Issue 70 | May 22, 2009 |

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Masters of Pain

Syed Zain Al-Mahmood

In the 2007 Hollywood blockbuster “Rendition”, Jake Gyllenhaal plays the role of a CIA operative overseeing the interrogation of a “terror suspect”. The subject of “enhanced interrogation” is Dr.Anwar Al- Ibrahimi, a chemical engineer of Egyptian origin. Ibrahimi was snatched by the CIA while on his way back to the US after a visit to Egypt. His offense: his name loosely matches that of a wanted terrorist. While his wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) tries frantically to locate her husband, the bewildered engineer is taken to a secret overseas CIA prison where he is stripped naked, beaten mercilessly, and among other things has water poured down his mouth and nose. He is asked questions regarding his “associations” with certain individuals and no matter how many times he denies it, his interrogators simply refuse to take no for an answer. Gyllenhaal is convinced very early on that Ibrahimi knows nothing, but he is overruled by his superior in Washington. Meanwhile the desperate enquiries initiated by Ibrahimi's wife are stonewalled by Washington officials, who deny all knowledge of his existence. For all practical purposes, Anwar Al-Ibrahimi has disappeared off the face of the earth.

Hollywood fantasy? X-files style conspiracy theory? Chilling revelations emerging from Washington in recent months have proved that “rendition” by the CIA was fact rather than fiction. Thousands of people were picked up by the CIA from places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East and held without trial. They were then “rendered” into foreign interrogation centres, away from the protection of US laws. The Bush administration preferred to call them “enemy combatants” rather than prisoners of war so that they would not have access to Geneva Convention rights. They were tortured in the hope of eliciting information. Such tactics were authorized at the highest levels of the government.

Anwar Al-Ibrahimi's story was not the figment of a Hollywood scriptwriter's imagination. It is loosely based on the strange case of Ibn al Sheikh al Libi whom the CIA arrested in 2001. Under torture after his rendition to Egypt, al Libi conveniently provided a confession of how Saddam Hussein had been training al Qaeda in chemical weapons. This was at a time when the Bush administration was trying to find a smoking gun linking Saddam to Al Qaeda. The “evidence” extracted from Libi was used by Colin Powell at the United Nations in February 2003 to justify the war in Iraq.

That "proof" was later debunked when it became clear Al-Libi, under torture, had merely told his captors what they wanted to hear. The case of Al-Libi and others have undermined the claim that “harsh interrogation” elicits useful information. Critics have consistently said that torture is a slippery slope. Not only does each act of torture make it easier to accept the use of more torture and worse abuse in the future, but it is also an ineffective interrogation tool. It may well produce false information because under torture a prisoner will eventually say anything to stop the pain - regardless of whether it is true. Because of this the interrogator can never be “sure” that they are getting the truth and will never know when to stop. In other words, it may become impossible to separate the guilty from the innocent.

More shocking cases are now coming out into the open, and they show an appalling pattern of abuse and deceit on the part of the Bush administration. According to Lawrence B. Wilkerson former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, the government knew very early on that most prisoners in Guantanamo and other places were innocent. But rather than admit mistakes, the Pentagon and the CIA chose to lock them up and throw away the keys.

Members of Amnesty International stage a protest against human rights abuses outside the US Embassy. AFP PHOTO

George Orwell famously said that governments control language as well as people. Bush and his cronies certainly used every euphemism they could think of to avoid admitting human rights abuses. When Donald Rumsfeld said interrogators at Abu Gharib had been asked to create “favourable conditions for interrogation” it did not involve giving the prisoners new clothes or English lessons. In fact, when one cuts through the code, most of the techniques used by US intelligence agents were “remixed” versions of age-old torture rituals.

“Sleep Management” may seem like a benign term for the treatment of insomnia, but in truth it is a form of torture that has long been popular because it requires no special equipment and leaves no marks on the body. Widely used in the Middle Ages on suspected witches by inquisitors, it was called the tormentum insomniae. After being kept awake for a hundred hours or so, it is conceivable that almost anybody will confess to almost anything, from flying through the night sky on a broomstick to being a Jihadist.

“Water-boarding”, popularized by Cheney, does not involve water skis, but holding prisoners under water for long enough for them to think they are drowning. Again, interrogators favor it because after the prisoner has coughed the water out of his lungs, it leaves no identifiable marks. “Stress Positioning” involves putting prisoners in extremely uncomfortable positions for hours.

It is a cruel irony that many of these abusive techniques appear in a US military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. This programme had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans. In other words, the US had turned to the very methods it had taught its soldiers to fight. Japanese commanders who had resorted to Water-boarding were prosecuted by the United States in war crimes trials after the Second World War.

Of course, the United States is not the first government to torture, and it will not be the last. There are plenty of worse examples. From Russia to Sudan to Burma, governments around the world have ridden roughshod over accepted norms of civilized behaviour -- usually in the name of national security. Despotic rulers love it because they can make the wrong people say the “right things”.

The debate around the use of torture has centred on the “ticking bomb” theory -- if a man knows where a bomb is, torturing him may reveal the location of the bomb and save lives. But this scenario ignores the possibility that the suspect may be, like Anwar Al-Ibrahimi, entirely innocent. History offers no modern examples of the strategic effectiveness of harsh interrogation techniques. On the contrary, the interrogations, torture and confinement may turn many of the men rounded up in the “war on terror” into hardened militants. Thirsty for revenge, they could become the foot soldiers of terrorism.

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