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Saturday, August 30, 2014
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Published: Monday, 1/31/2005

We haven't traveled far from barbaric past

Now the Brits have their own "Abu Ghraib." Rumors of the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers have been floating around since the Abu Ghraib story hit the news last year. The pictures released at the court-martial of three soldiers at the British base in Osnabruck, Germany, rival those taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. The Economist calls this the coalition of the shameful.

The abuses occurred in the British-controlled area of Basra. The British commanders and their civilian leaders blamed the abuses, as had their American counterparts, on a few bad apples. They contend that this kind of behavior is not typical of their soldiers.

It is surprising that during the recent court martial of Spec. Charles Graner no senior officers were called by the defense to testify. It could have helped clear the air about the direct or indirect implication of higher-ups in the chain of military command.

The abuse of prisoners is not a new phenomenon. The history of warfare is replete with accounts of terrible abuses committed by almost every country and every people in the world. The Geneva Conventions were an answer to such abuses. They are important because they protect all prisoners of war. These conventions uphold the universal principles of human dignity and human rights that are often trampled under war conditions. One would think that we have traveled and progressed some distance from our barbaric past. We have not.

Most of us have a veneer of civility in ordinary, everyday life. But in crises and under difficult situations, that veneer peels off quickly and either in anger - or for just plain fun - we become savages. I am sure in their private lives Specialist Graner and his sidekick, Pvt. Lynddie England, are quiet reasonable people. Were they acting on their own, as the Army would have us believe, or were they given implicit or explicit license to do whatever they pleased? Gen. Geoffrey Miller, in charge of Iraqi prisons at the time, had directed his subordinates to treat Iraqi prisoners as dogs.

We know about Abu Ghraib only because some torturers posed triumphantly beside their "trophies" and took pictures. In the case of British abuse, the story leaked out only when a returning soldier had a roll of film developed at a photo shop in Staffordshire, England. Things started to unravel when the shop informed the police.

Would the public have known about the abuses if there were no photos? Given the secretive nature of our institutions and the tendency to keep dirty laundry hidden from the public, this would have not happened. Just look at what has happened atGuantanamo Bay.

At Guantanamo Bay such abuses have been going on since the arrival at the U.S. base on the island of Cuba of craftily titled enemy combatants three years ago. It was only after international protests that the prisoners were removed from cages and placed in barracks. But this did not stop the abuse.

The arrival on the island of Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller changed the rules of interrogation. Abu Ghraib happened when the general was put in charge of prisons in Iraq.

In 2003, during General Miller's watch at Guatanamo Bay, 23 prisoners attempted mass suicide and an additional 350 attempted to hurt themselves in what the Army euphemistically calls self-harm incidents. Though there are no digital cameras clicking in that camp, the stories of abuse have come out from some of the released prisoners.

There are still 553 prisoners in that Caribbean purgatory who have not been charged with any crimes. The Department of Defense is planning a new prison facility there. including a psychiatric wing. It seems most the prisoners are going to be there for the rest of their lives.



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