Revolution #103, October 7 2007

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From A World to Win News Service

“Biko to Guantánamo”--Doctors call for resistance, not complicity in torture

September 10, 2007. A World to Win News Service. This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko at the hands of the South African police, on September 12, 1977. In honor of that hero, a group of 266 medical doctors chose the occasion to launch an unprecedented criticism of the “U.S. medical establishment” for complicity in the torture and murder of prisoners in Guantánamo and elsewhere, citing “strong parallels between the Biko case and the ongoing role of U.S. military doctors in Guantánamo Bay and the War on Terror.”

In particular, the open letter published in the latest issue of the UK-based international medical journal The Lancet highlights the force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantánamo and says that the physicians involved should be disciplined by their professional organizations. International guidelines hold that such involuntary procedures are unethical. According to reports it cites, prisoners protesting mistreatment and the lack of any perspective of release after as much as six years of illegal imprisonment without charges have been subjected to deliberate torture under the guise of medical treatment: “they are strapped into restraint chairs in uncomfortably cold isolation cells to force them off their hunger strike.” Other reports say that metal tubes are forcefully thrust down prisoners’ throats and into their stomachs--with no lubrication or medication--and then jerked out again, several times a day, in order to cause maximum pain.

The letter details even worse crimes, including “fraudulent record keeping on detainees who have died as a result of failed interrogations.” This is emphasized with the parallel made with the Biko case, where two doctors, one of whom later repented and described his role, signed medical forms covering up the fact that Biko was killed by a police beating and instead suggested he had died as the result of a hunger strike. It pointedly notes: “there has been no formal report on the three alleged suicides in Guantánamo that took place in June, 2006.”

The letter, signed by physicians from 17 countries, especially the UK and South Africa, recalls that in the face of the South African government cover-up, “it was only grass-roots efforts by doctors that led, almost eight years later” to one of the doctors “being found guilty of improper and disgraceful conduct and being struck off the medical register” (that is, no longer allowed to practice). After the fall of the apartheid regime, in seeking reinstatement, that doctor said he had let himself “become too closely identified with the organs of the State, especially the Police force.” The 266 doctors who signed the letter asked that the American Medical Association take action against the former hospital director at Guantánamo, John Edmondson, who was awarded a medal by the U.S. military for his “inspiring leadership” at that medical facility.

The leader of the current protest letter, David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist in Birmingham, UK, brought charges against Edmondson a year and a half ago. The case against him seemed clear-cut: the American authorities have boasted of force-feeding about a hundred prisoners to break a mass protest in 2005. The World Medical Association, of which the American Medical Association is a member, specifically prohibits the procedure.

In his own defense, Edmondson wrote in an affidavit that “the involuntary feeding was authorized through a lawful order of a higher military authority.” The Lancet letter points out that this is the “Nuremberg defense”--named after the leading Nazi war criminals tried by the U.S. in Nuremberg, Germany after the war, who argued that in exterminating Jews they were only following orders. The U.S., at that time, declared “I was only following orders” an invalid line of defense, concluding that everyone is responsible for their own actions, and hung the men.

Nothing has come of the Guantánamo charges so far because the American Medical Association has simply ignored them and local medical authorities in the U.S. claim they have no jurisdiction. While the Royal College of Physicians in the UK wrote of the force-feeding “in England, this would be a criminal act,” the British government has refused a request from the British Medical Association to allow “a group of independent doctors to assess the detainees.”

In a related development, on August 30, an American military court acquitted Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Jordan, the only officer to face criminal charges in regard to the abuse and torture of prisoners shown in the photos from Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

An earlier article in The Lancet written by an American doctor, published August 21, 2004, lists, among other acts of torture performed at Abu Ghraib with the complicity of medical personnel, a man who was beaten on his broken leg with his crutch, a prisoner suspended from a badly injured shoulder, a doctor letting an untrained guard sew up a prisoner’s wounds, the use of mind-altering and other drugs during interrogations, doctors reviving unconscious prisoners for further torture, and a doctor inserting a catheter (tube) into the body of a prisoner who died under torture so it could be claimed that he was alive when brought to the hospital. The death certificate for a prisoner beaten to death said he had had a heart attack. For another whose skull had been crushed and his feet burned, doctors wrote that he had “died of natural causes…in his sleep.”

The article recalls that although Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross reported similar incidents at Abu Ghraib to the authorities throughout 2002--two years before the scandal provoked by the release of the photos--the U.S. government and military conducted no investigations. Instead, in retaliation, the ICRC was denied access to prisoners, a grave and rare violation of international law.

Ten ordinary soldiers have been convicted for what they are seen doing in the Abu Ghraib photos, and several of those featured carrying out barbaric and criminal acts have been sent to prison. Jordan, found innocent of responsibility for the actions of the men and women under his direct leadership, was convicted, ironically, of breaking an order not to discuss the case, for which he was reprimanded.

This decision is all the more shocking because Jordan figured prominently in the report of the official investigation of Abu Ghraib written by U.S. Army Major General Antonio Taguba. As a punishment for what he wrote, Taguba was ordered to retire from the Army. Later, in an interview with investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine (June 25, 2007), he said that the intelligence officer Jordan seemed to be intimately involved with and probably leading the interrogation of the prisoners that guards had been told to “soften up” through torture. Taguba also told Hersh that the Army commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Sanchez, “knew exactly what was going on,” and that the procedures for torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib had been worked out by Major General Geoffrey Miller, the commander at Guantánamo, who was brought to Abu Ghraib in 2004 to “Gitmo [Guantánamo]-ize” the American prison system in Iraq.

In line with the allegations in The Lancet letter, Taguba recounts crimes even more hideous than seen in the released photos. In addition to scenes of extreme sexual humiliation involving a father and son and others showing a woman prisoner exhibited naked for the camera, he says in the interview that photos and videos that the American authorities managed to cover up showed U.S. soldiers raping Iraqi men and women prisoners. Some photos from the same set published by the Australian media purport to show the bodies of men beaten and shot to death.

Hersh pursues the question of deaths in custody in his article about Taguba. He records cases of Army doctors changing their medical reports to remove mention of signs of rape and torture on the bodies of prisoners “found” dead at Guantánamo. “For lack of a camera, you could have seen in Guantánamo what was seen in Abu Ghraib,” an Air Force Lieutenant General who investigated charges about conditions in Guantánamo under Miller’s command told Hersh. He said that the report issued by the government bore little relation to the draft he submitted. He, too, has been retired from the military.

An unnamed “former senior intelligence official” told Hersh that in dealing with the crisis created when the Abu Ghraib photos were released, the “basic strategy was ‘prosecute the kids in the photographs but protect the big picture.’”

The soldier who brought the photos to light fears for his life and lives in secrecy ever since former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally made his name public. Rumsfeld also personally tried to intimidate Taguba. Hersh partly attributes Taguba’s refusal to whitewash Abu Ghraib to his mother’s stories of atrocities at a Japanese prisoner of war camp in the Philippines, the country where he was born.

Abu Ghraib is no longer a U.S. installation, but the U.S. armed forces hold tens of thousands of Iraqi prisoners now, far more than before. There are about 355 prisoners still in Guantánamo. The number and names of the prisoners first became known when a Naval human rights lawyer, Lieutenant Commander Matthew Diaz, mailed them out hidden in a Valentine’s Day card during the final days of his service there in 2005. He was recently sentenced to six months in prison for that act.

This coming October, the U.S. Supreme Court is to rule on the constitutionality of a law passed by Congress that Guantánamo prisoners may not appeal to civilian courts. As of now, the men (some of them children when captured or kidnapped) are to be tried by military tribunals, and on each case a doctor must certify that they are fit for trial.

The Lancet article hails “physicians in Chile, Egypt, Turkey and other nations [who] have taken great personal risks to expose state-sponsored torture.” But, as for “physicians, physicians’ assistants, nurses, medics… and various command and administrative staff” who, on the contrary take part in such acts, directly or by helping to cover them up, their actions “do not merely fall short of medical ideals; some constitute grave breaches of international or U.S. law” and they should be held accountable for their crimes.

Yet another article in The Lancet, August 16, 2003, addresses doctors and medical staff at Guantánamo and other such places directly. Drawing lessons from apartheid South Africa and the role of doctors in repression there, it says that after prisoners have suffered years of illegal imprisonment, abuse and often torture, physicians at Guantánamo have no choice, morally, but to declare that none of them are fit for trial, and that medical associations should support doctors in taking this stand.


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