A thousand Mamdouh Habibs


It’s a question on everyone’s lips: is Mamdouh Habib really the innocent victim of chance that he claims to be, or is he duping the Australian public about his true involvement with terrorists?

Unfortunately, it’s not a question that will be decisively answered until he has his promised moment before a judge. Until then, the government will continue to claim his guilt by association; the media will continue to hound him; the public will continue to wonder; and the opposition will continue to do anything but oppose.

The question of Habib’s guilt, however, is not the central issue surrounding his case. The most alarming aspect to Habib’s story is that, for three years, our government was inanimate in the face of growing evidence that the United States has been using torture in its War on Terror.

Although Habib’s claims of torture, rendering to Egypt and appalling conditions are disturbing, he has not told us anything that we should not already have known. Since the American invasion of Afghanistan, reputed media sources have been bringing us regular stories of torture and mistreatment of detainees by American forces.

As far back as Christmas Day, 2002, the Washington Times reported that detainees at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, ‘are sometimes kept standing or kneeling for hours in black hoods or spray-painted goggles’. At times they are held in ‘awkward, painful positions and deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights’.

Habib claims that he was ‘rendered’ to Egypt. ‘Rendering’ is, of course, the delicate euphemism for the outsourcing of interrogation to countries unfettered by Western aversions to torture and niceties such as the Geneva Convention. It has been widely reported that, since September 11, the US has been effectively kidnapping dozens of people suspected of terrorist links, sending them in private jets to other countries for interrogation; bypassing the legal protections and extradition procedures that normally constrain the movement of suspected criminals.

As a former intelligence officer told the American Newsweek magazine in early 2003, detainees at Camp X-Ray were being flown to Egypt for interrogation by Egyptian authorities. By way of example, he mentioned that a senior al-Qaeda detainee, held in Camp X-ray, was ‘rendered to Egypt after refusing to tell things’. The Egyptians were far more effective: ‘They promptly tore his fingernails out and he started to tell things.’

As it is now readily accepted that Habib had been sent to Egypt, it is reasonable to assume he was not sent there to satiate his appetite for Egyptian cuisine or so that he might be more comfortable in his native Egypt. Rather, the evidence would suggest that Habib, like many others, was sent to Egypt to be interrogated: interrogated by a country that is well-known and documented to engage in torture. As Human Rights Watch’s paper, ‘Egypt’s Torture Epidemic’ states, ‘torture in Egypt is a widespread and persistent phenomenon. Security forces and the police routinely torture or ill-treat detainees, particularly during interrogation.’

Since the first American centurion set foot in Afghanistan, there have been stories emerging of US mistreatment of detainees. Abu Ghraib brought the problem to the attention of the world, but nobody should assume it was an isolated abberation, or that the problem has ceased. For instance, in January, 2004, the UK’s Sunday Times revealed that a detainee of American forces had been ‘beaten frequently, given shocks with an electric cattle prod and had one of his toenails prised off.’

The Taguba Report, the ground-breaking investigation into abuse of Iraqi POWs, chronicles an imaginative array of ‘interrogative techniques’ employed by American forces in Iraq: pouring the phosphoric liquid from chemical lights on detainees; pointing loaded 9mm pistols at detainees; pouring cold water on detainees; bashing detainees with chairs and broom handles; threatening male detainees with anal rape; slamming detainees against cell walls; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light; using guard dogs to intimidate detainees and, in one instance, setting a dog onto a detainee; videotaping naked male and female detainees; forcibly arranging detainees into various sexually explicit positions and photographing them; forcing detainees to remain naked for days; forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear; forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate whilst being videotaped and photographed; arranging detainees in piles and then jumping on them; writing ‘I am a rapest (sic)’ on a detainee and then forcing him to rape a 15 year old fellow detainee; and placing a dog collar around the neck of naked detainee and then having a female soldier pose with him for a photograph.

Although, in a handful of cases, soldiers have been successfully prosecuted, it is implausible that the torture and mistreatment of detainees was simply the work of some ‘bad apples’. In documents sourced by the ACLU under American FOI legislation, US soldiers are recorded as giving sworn testimony that Iraqi detainees were being tortured and that the, ‘chain of command did nothing to stop these war crimes, and allowed them to happen.’

Indeed, the idea that policies and directives of the Bush Administration has facilitated the torture of detainees is supported by two under-reported facts: that in August, 2002, the Administration received a 50 page legal memorandum that argued that the US could inflict ‘severe pain’ during interrogations; and that, in December 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)released FBI documents detailing the torture of detainees in Camp X-Ray.

The memorandum argued that severe pain might be inflicted on detainees held abroad that, although it might be ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading’, would still not breach the Convention against Torture.

In other words, the gloves could be safely removed in the War on Terror. It speaks volumes, that the author of this disturbing advice, Mr. Alberto Gonzales, recently ascended to the role of US Attorney General.

A December 2004 report by the ACLU, cites leaked FBI documents referring to an Executive Order from the President authorizing ‘inhumane interrogation methods against detainees in Iraq.’ The order specifies ‘sleep deprivation, stress positions, the use of military dogs, and ‘sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc.’ According to the leaked documents, FBI officers had complained about the use of torture at Camp X Ray by other government agencies: one agent describing how detainees were ‘shackled hand and foot in a fetal position on the floor and kept in that position for 18 to 24 hours at a time’ and that most had ‘urinated or defecated on themselves’.

Habib’s tales of torture momentarily shocked Australians. However, in the media of the Muslim world, there are a thousand Mamdouh Habibs; each telling similar tales of mistreatment and each a poster boy for terrorist recruiters. Although the images of naked Iraqi prisoners writhing on the ground or stacked in human pyramids may have faded from our screens and our memories, this imagery forms the prism through which the Muslim world views the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The defining image of the War on Terror is not the toppling of the statue of Saddam, but the images of Abu Ghraib.

Regardless of whether Habib is guilty or innocent, our government’s impotency in securing his most basic rights, and its continued public support for US policy in the Middle East raises far more pressing questions. As one of the US’ principle apologists on the world stage, Australia is seen as morally and politically implicated in everything that America does. Whereas our security may not be immediately threatened by Habib or Hicks, it is threatened by our continued support for the US-led War on Terror; a war that, by poisoning our relations with one billion people, has made us less safe and, paradoxically, more exposed than ever to the threat of terror.

The Taguba Report: www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4894001/

The ACLU Torture Files: www.aclu.org/International/International.cfm?ID=13962&c=36

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