Despite humiliating treatment, being transported against their will halfway around the world, and being locked in cages on a base illegally occupied by Washington in Cuba, none of the prisoners held by the U.S. government have been charged with any crime.
The treatment of those grabbed in Afghanistan by U.S. authorities is an extension of the assault on workers' rights being carried out by Washington at home.
About the same number of men are behind bars inside the United States, caught up in the "anti-terror" sweep launched four months ago, the largest roundup of foreign nationals since World War II. A number of these people, who are mostly of Middle Eastern descent, have spoken up about the inhumane treatment they have been subjected to. They have also condemned the authorities' trampling over constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure and arbitrary imprisonment.
The American Civil Liberties Union's New Jersey chapter announced at a press conference January 22 it is filing a lawsuit against Hudson and Passaic Counties demanding the names of all INS detainees. "Our lawsuit is relying on very clear state law, three different statutes, requiring that jails make public the names and other information on those being held.
Many of those imprisoned since September 11 have been moved to jails in New Jersey by federal authorities. They are held in two cell blocks and four dormitories, each of which "holds 30 to 60 men, crammed into triple bunks, bumping into one another as they make their way to and from a single shower," reported the New Jersey Star-Ledger. No "contact visits" by family members are permitted and trips to the gymnasium are limited to two a week.
The INS has denied access to detainees who have asked for legal visits and, in response to an earlier lawsuit, released the names of 725 people it had detained. But on the list provided, the Justice Department blacked out the names and arrest and custody locations of all those it held. In more than a dozen cases there was a lag of a month between arrest and filing of any charge.
The St. Petersburg Times wrote on January 13 that in Florida alone dozens of people "are being held on immigration infractions that would have been handled with a simple telephone call before September 11. Now, all the government needs to jail them indefinitely is the most slender connection to terrorism." U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft has justified the policy, saying that officials are using "every constitutional tool to keep suspected terrorists locked up."
At the time of President George Bush's decision to institute military tribunals for trials of some alleged "terrorists," Vice President Richard Cheney stated that such people "don't deserve the same guarantees and safeguards that would be used for an American citizen."
Of the more than 1,000 people detained in that period across the United States, only one, Zacarias Moussaoui, faces charges related to the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Twenty-five are being held on other charges "related to terrorism" or under material witness warrants--that is, on the possibility that they possess relevant information. Some 62 others have been charged with federal crimes. A number of prisoners have already been deported.
Although lawyers have a hard time gaining access to jails in New Jersey, a "constant flow" of FBI agents visit the cells to interrogate the prisoners in a room housing half a dozen glass cubicles. Among the detainees, explained the Star-Ledger, is taxi driver Faizul Jabar, 30, from Guyana, still held after being cleared of suspicion of constructing a bomb in his Queens, New York, apartment. "I would think by now if you investigate and you don't find anything, you let him go," said his sister. "We're not even from the Middle East."
Khalid Asam, a lawyer who represents several detainees, told the paper "how it works. First you are guilty, then you are a suspect, then you are released."
Through their own testimony, the words of legal counsel, or the protests of friends and family members, a number of detainees have gotten their stories published in the media. Authorities have reportedly denied prisoners contact with their families and supporters, and obstructed their legal representatives. They have also placed some in solitary confinement, as they did with five Cubans arrested in Florida who were convicted on frame-up charges of conspiracy to commit espionage and other crimes, and who face sentences from 19 years to life.
Among those incarcerated are:
Attention has focused on the more than 100 prisoners incarcerated at Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo. Around 1,500 marines and military police have been flown to the base to expand the compound's capacity to 2,000 prisoners.
The U.S. government continues to occupy Guantánamo base at the eastern end of Cuba under a lease signed with a U.S.-installed regime in 1903. Since 1959 the Cuban government has called for the removal of the military facility. By holding the prisoners at the base, the U.S. government is bound by fewer restrictions than it would face on U.S. soil.
Transported in the freezing holds of military cargo planes, under sedation and with hoods or blacked-out goggles over their eyes; held in chicken wire cages--described as "kennels" by one reporter--exposed to sun and rain, with one-inch thick foam mats as beds; constantly shackled and handcuffed; the prisoners' plight has sparked controversy from civil liberties supporters. Washington's imperialist allies have also used the opportunity to score some political points.
The Pentagon has termed the men "unlawful combatants," refusing to acknowledge that they are prisoners of war--a classification that would require its actions to be judged according to the 1949 Geneva Convention on such prisoners. POWs, according to that convention, include members of militias and "volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory," with the proviso that they serve under a command structure and carry weapons openly.
British foreign secretary Jack Straw stated January 17, "I think it is very important for these people to be held according to the principles of international law.... That's the way in which one can maintain the moral ascendancy here, and the reverse is obviously true." At least three of the prisoners are reportedly British citizens. Several other pro-Taliban British and French nationals were captured during the assault.
While claiming that Camp X-Ray "will be humane," Marine Brig.-Gen. Michael Lehnert stated, "We have no intention of making it comfortable."
U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on January 17 that some prisoners at Guantánamo would face indefinite detention. "The issue as to what happens to those people will follow the interrogations and the process of getting as much information out of them as we can," he stated. While some could be tried in U.S. civilian courts, "some may or may not end up in a military commission. Others could end up in the U.S. criminal court system. Others conceivably could be returned to their countries of nationality and end up being prosecuted there."
"It's conceivable some could be kept in detention for a period while additional intelligence information is gathered or if they simply are dangerous--and there's no question, there are a number down in Guantánamo Bay who, every time anyone walks by, threaten to kill Americans the first chance they get," the defense secretary asserted.
This allegation has received widespread currency in the U.S. media. U.S. Army colonel Terence Carrico, who acts as the warden at the compound, said that as far as he knew only one prisoner had made such a threat.
John Walker charged
Another prisoner of war, John Walker, was charged on January 15 with conspiring to kill U.S. citizens in Afghanistan and providing support to terrorist groups--offenses that carry maximum sentences of life in prison. Announcing that the government would not pursue the capital charge of treason, Ashcroft said that Walker, who is a U.S. citizen, "turned his back on our country and our values.... Youth is not absolution for treachery."
The 20-year-old surrendered with Taliban forces at the city of Kunduz. He was interrogated by CIA agent Michael Spann at the fortress in Mazar-i-Sharif shortly before a rebellion broke out, during which hundreds of prisoners were gunned down and Walker himself was wounded.
The case against Walker is based on testimony U.S. authorities say he gave during 45 days of interrogations aboard the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea. Neither Walker's parents nor attorneys they hired have been allowed any contact with him throughout the period since his capture. The lawyers are expected to challenge the contention that Walker spoke voluntarily with the FBI.
"In a situation where he was locked up...and surrounded by people on the other side of a war, it's hard to imagine that Walker was fully aware of his rights and understood his right to counsel," said Elisa Massimino, the Washington director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
Defending workers' rights
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