Dont cry for me Guantánamo*
… it was surrounded by high walls, with turrets and guard posts topped with barbed wire. Cells were designed for a single prisoner and could be locked for as many hours or days as the prison authorities wished …. we spent much of the time in some form of solitary confinement …. Political prisoners were transferred in from other prisons. Many came from clandestine detention centres that the junta used for unacknowledged detention, if their captors felt that no further “intelligence” could be extracted from them through torture …
So writes Juan Méndez in his excellent new book, Taking A Stand: the evolution of human rights. Méndez, now the UN’s 'special rapporteur' on combatting torture, is talking here about his time held without charge for 18 months under the repressive Argentinian regimes of the mid-1970s.
He was apprehended in August 1975 and held for most of the next year and a half at a place called Unit 9 on the outskirts of the city of La Plata. Torture was routine (“it became apparent that virtually everyone had been tortured, and most of us with an electric prod”, he says), as were demeaning treatments like violently-conducted cell searches, the use of punishment cells (chanchos), and the steady humiliation of inmates vilified as “terrorists”.
This was Argentina’s 'dirty war' (I was a mere child at the time; all we heard about in my world was the ’78 Argentinian World Cup, Archie Gemmell’s “wonder goal” and all that).
So, fast forward to the present: Juan Méndez's now the UN torture expert, using his own painful experience to help inform this work. Excellent. Poetic justice. And Argentina is slowly but surely come to terms with the “dirty war” (for example, see this powerful and very sad Channel 4 News interview recently with a woman whose parents were both killed back in the 70s).
But what Méndez has to say about arbitrary detention and torture still resonates today. In particular, much of the material I’ve quoted above could be applied to somewhere like Guantánamo Bay. People held without charge for several years, people being labelled “terrorists", people being brought from secret prisons where they’d been tortured, the use of solitary confinement and so on – the parallels are stark and chilling.
In fact Méndez himself draws a comparison with Guantánamo, and is sharply critical of President Obama for his (deeply shocking) announcement earlier this year that some detainees are set to be held at the camp indefinitely without any trial whatsoever.
Juan Méndez is launching his book at a public event at the east London HQ of Amnesty this Monday (14 November) and I’m pretty sure he’ll have plenty to say about Guantánamo, about Shaker Aamer, about rendition (including the shuttling of detainees through Danish airspace over Greenland!), and about the UK’s own woefully underpowered 'Detainee Inquiry' to be held under Sir Peter Gibson (BTW, please support the Amnesty action to get the Gibson inquiry properly beefed up).
Another case Méndez might have in mind at the moment is that of ‘Abd al Rahim Hussayn Muhammed al Nashiri, the Saudi Arabian man due to appear at an arraignment hearing at Guantánamo tomorrow. He’s already been held without trial in US custody for nine years, including almost four years in a secret “black site” where he was tortured. He’s accused of involvement in the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen and another on a French oil tanker two years later. He may have been involved, I don’t know. I do know, though, that the way they’re treating him is totally unacceptable, including putting him before an unfair “military commission” with the possibility of a death sentence. It’s the dirty war all over again.
*PS: see this Joe Queenan article for an interesting backgrounder on the politics of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s over-the-top tear-jerker
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