Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Abu Ghraib Controversy

Source: Jasbir K. Puar, ‘On Torture: Abu Ghraib’ Radical History Review, Issue 93  (2005), p. 20

[Caution: images may be disturbing.]

In 2004, images were released of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, an American prison near Baghdad.

Source: www.antiwar.com

Abu Ghraib

Abu Ghraib was one of Saddam Hussein’s most infamous torture chambers, now under the control of the United States Armed Forces.  Abu Ghraib was the prison where interrogation took place, as part of the ‘War on Terror’.

In 2003, as part of a ‘spot check’ of the gaol, The Red Cross observed the isolation wing of the prison, and saw the various methods used in order to gain information and compliance from the prisoners.  The Red Cross saw that prisoners were subjected to empty concrete cells in total darkness, with no clothing or bedding for their comfort or health.  When officials were asked for an explanation of these activities, they replied that it was part of the process[1].  Later on, an army officer who had served in Iraq stated that rather than address these concerns regarding prisoner abuse, the Army instead tried to limit the amount of spot inspections on the gaol, stating that they should make appointments when they wished to visit.

In 2004, the first photos detailing the treatment of Iraqi prisoners were released on CBS TV’s 60 Minutes II[2]. 

[1] Mark Danner (2004) ‘Torture and Death’ Abu Ghraib: the politics of torture, California: North Atlantic Books, p. 11
[2] ‘Senate Report Update’ 60 Minutes II, 2004, http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4674645n&tag=mncol;lst;5 (Accessed: 05/06/2012)

Legal findings regarding Abu Ghraib and the official response

When the images surfaced, President George W. Bush was quoted as saying “Their [the prisoners] treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people.”  None of the high ranked White House officials, or the President talked of the abuses as ‘torture’ instead calling them ‘abuse’ or ‘humiliation’[1].

Source: Michael Niman, 'Strange Fruit in Abu Ghraib: the privatisation of Torture', The Humanist, 2004, vol. 64(4), p. 23

In addition to this, there were those who defended the actions of the soldiers from a ‘this is war’ standpoint.  Rush Limbaugh, a radio show host infamously stated that the soldiers did what they did as an ‘emotional release’.
            “…I’m talking about people having a good time, these people.  You ever hear of emotional release?”[2]

In the report written by Antonio M. Taguba, the 800th Military Police Brigade was investigated.  A list was provided of what ‘abuses’ were common in the prison.  The table below lists them.

Source: The Taguba Report, http://www.npr.org/iraq/2004/prison_abuse_report.pdf (Accessed 05/06/2012).

The report calls these abuses, ‘sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses’.  This highlights the illegality of the techniques these American soldiers used to interrogate Iraqi prisoners.  Some of these abuses were present in the images that were released such as the Iraqi prisoner being led by a soldier with a dog leash and collar.  Others have not been seen.  In Australia, there has been very little mention of the instances of abuse of the female prisoners and there was minimal mention of the photographs in which soldiers give the ‘thumbs up’ sign to the camera over the deceased body of the Iraqi prisoner below them.  Puar (2005) states that there was no reporting on female rape, was because it was neither ‘news nor photograph-worthy’[3].

In the following years, those responsible at the ‘on the ground’ level of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners were disciplined.  They included staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick II, Specialist Charles A. Graner, Sergeant Javal Davis, Specialist Megan Ambuhl, Specialist Sabrina Harmna and Jeremy Sivits.  However, there has been minimal investigation into the high ranked officials within the armed forces at Abu Ghraib.

[1] Susan, Sontag, ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’ New York Times Magazine 23/03/2004, p. 25
[2] Jasbir K. Puar, ‘On Torture: Abu Ghraib’ Radical History Review, Issue 93  (2005), p. 33
[3] Jasbir K. Puar, ‘On Torture: Abu Ghraib’ Radical History Review, Issue 93  (2005), p. 26

What is Torture? And how does Abu Ghraib stand up?

In her article ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, Susan Sontag quotes the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment to which the United States is a signatory.

The Convention states that torture is,


In addition to this, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 state that,


Not only do these quotes highlight that the abuses of Iraqi Prisoners in Abu Ghraib were in fact torture, but it also highlights the flaw in Alan Dershowitz’s argument in which he states that a ‘ticking time bomb’ argument could justify the use of torture, as a method of choosing the lesser evil[1].  He uses the example of the suffering of one ‘insurgent’ to save the lives of many innocent people from an imminent threat[2].

However, there is also the practice of rendition.  Arimatsu (2005) defines rendition as the ‘the transfer of someone suspected of committing a serious terrorism-related offence, to a foreign state that has a record of subjecting prisoners to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.’  This is where the line of torture gets further blurred.  The United States Government has come under fire previously for using gaols and their staff from countries where torture is almost guaranteed in response to the ‘international’ fight against terrorism[3].  While the United States Government considers themselves not directly responsible for these instances of torture, should they be held accountable?  And if they are already engaging in this activities, is it such a leap to consider that the high level officials in the military and in the White House were well aware of the torture in Abu Ghraib?

Source: Mark Danner (2004) ‘Torture and Death’ Abu Ghraib: the politics of torture, California: North Atlantic Books, p. viii

[1] John T. Parry, ‘Torture Warrants and the Rule of Law’, Albany Law Review 2007, p. 885
[2] Alan Dershowitz, ‘Is There a Torturous Road to Justice?’, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 8th 2001, http://articles.latimes.com/2001/nov/08/local/me-1494 (Accessed: 05/06/2012)
[3] Louise, Arimatsu, ‘International Law, Torture and the Transfer of Suspects’, The World Today, Vol. 61(11) 2005, p.17

Susan Sontag - 'Regarding the Torture of Others'

As has been mentioned before, Susan Sontag, in her paper ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’ raises the concern not that a few people thought that these actions were appropriate, but the concern regarding whether these actions were systemised or condoned.

Source: politicalcartoons.com

Sontag highlights that in 2002 the United States Government made any members or supporters of Al Qaeda were considered criminals, and therefore they were not protected by the Geneva Conventions – something that Donald Rumsfeld, the then Secretary of defence pointed out.  She compares the images of the abuse to the photos of lynching in the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century.  The images are similar in that the both portray the suffering of people considered beneath the inflictors of the abuse.  Both show the perpetrators as smiling, content, proud characters, and are considered ‘trophy pieces’.

Finally, Sontag challenges Bush’s statement that the torture these prisoners suffered was not in the nature of Americans.  She simplifies the process to that of having fun as these images were intended to be sent to others and ‘enjoyed’ as a sense of entertainment.  She uses examples of violent video games that mimic war.  This teaching that war is fun, and anything must be done in order to win, has, in Sontag’s words heightened the ‘delight taken in violence’[1].

[1] Susan, Sontag, ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’ New York Times Magazine 23/03/2004, p. 28

Monday, 4 June 2012

Abu Ghraib, the Media and the Government

When the images of abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib surfaced, the initial response of the media was outrage.  However, there have been elements that have not been reported on.  For example, not all of the photos are available to the everyday citizen, and many of the photos that have been released, only involve male prisoners, and very little is mentioned regarding the treatment of female and child prisoners.

There has also been a huge amount of media on each of the soldiers who were in the photos, as many considered these 'just the actions of a few'.  One of these is the film 'Standard Operating Procedure' 

There is also no mention that the United States Government hires contractors in order to interrogate these suspects.  As mentioned before, the Government considers insurgent suspects as criminals and therefore they no longer treated under the Geneva conventions.  In addition to this, by using people that are external to the Government to interrogate prisoners, these contractors are not bound by the Geneva Conventions either[1].  If both these actions were considered, it seems hard to believe that the United States Government in no way intended on using torture on the Iraqi prisoners and it was, in fact just the acts of a few bad apples.

Source: policalcartoons.com 

Additionally, in the Australian media, there was little reporting regarding the opinions of those who had been mistreated, and the opinions of those who had worked within the gaol at the time.  For example, certain coalition military officers have states that they estimate “between 70 and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake[2].”  This highlights an entirely different level of concern for the chain of command in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Somehow, people are being arrested with no evidence that they are in fact guilty of anything, or worthy of suspect.

When considering the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, there should be more thought for what isn’t shown in the media rather than what is.  After all, the media has their own motives inspired by the bottom line and entertainment values of their product.

[1] John Gray, ‘Power and Vainglory’, Abu Ghraib: the politics of torture, California: North Atlantic Books, p. 50
[2] Mark Danner (2004) ‘Torture and Death’ Abu Ghraib: the politics of torture, California: North Atlantic Books, p. 4