Fri, Jul 30, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Ghost prisons a blot on America's moral leadership

The Bush administration holds alleged terror suspects incommunicado all over the world, blatantly violating basic human rights

By Isabel Hilton  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

The delegates gathered in Boston for the Democratic convention are now reported to be overwhelmingly opposed to the war in Iraq. But if their belated opposition is to change the policy of a future Kerry administration, it will require a return to respect for the law.

The delusion that officeholders know better than the law is an occupational hazard of the powerful and one to which those of an imperial cast of mind are especially prone. Checks and balances -- the constitutional underpinning of the democratic idea that no one individual can be trusted with unlimited power -- are there to keep such delusions under control.

The Abu Ghraib photographs awakened many in the US to the abuses that lie beneath the rhetoric of the global war on terror but the institutions responsible have not taken the message on board. On the day the Congressional report into Sept. 11 was published, another document was quietly released -- a military report that exonerated the high command for the Abu Ghraib abuses.

The implications go beyond Abu Ghraib: without a repudiation of the administration's actions, there will be no remedy for the even more sinister treatment of the unknown number of prisoners not captured on camera -- those who have been kidnapped and disappeared by US forces across the world.

Under military order No. 1, issued by US President George W. Bush in Nov. 2001, the president gave himself the right, in defiance of national and international law, to detain indefinitely any non-US citizen anywhere in the world. Many ended up in Guantanamo where at least some of their names were discovered.

Others simply vanished. They became in the US euphemism, "ghost prisoners", an unrecorded host held in secret, their detention denied, hidden from the Red Cross, legal or family access barred, their fate in the hands of unaccountable and unnamed US personnel.

When disappearance became state practice across Latin America in the 70s it aroused revulsion in democratic countries where it is a fundamental tenet of legitimate government that no state actor may detain -- or kill -- another human being without having to answer to the law.

Not only has Bush discarded that principle, he even brags about it. In his state of the union address in February last year, he said: "More than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Put it this way, they're no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies."

What are we to understand by this? That they have been murdered? That they are rotting in some torture cell in Jordan, or Egypt, or Diego Garcia? And, given the US record on "suspected terrorists" -- who have included taxi drivers and their passengers, boys of 13, old men who could hardly walk and migrants whose crime was to overstay a visa -- how can we trust a practice that disposes of people first and asks questions afterwards?

Nobody knows how many ghost prisoners there are. The US, as the Latin American dictatorships did, strains to ensure that we do not find out. In Iraq, of the roughly 12,000 detained after the US invasion, some appeared on lists, others vanished because of chaos and incompetence. Others died under interrogation.

Beyond the Iraqi jails, others -- including, but not limited to, the dozen or so high-profile al-Qaeda detainees captured since the war in Afghanistan -- have disappeared into the international ghost prison system, detained in one country and secretly transferred to another in what the official euphemism describes as "extraordinary rendition."

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