The HBO movie Ghosts of Abu Ghraib has finally appeared online, in a series of eight YouTube videos. The film shows that this country has, indisputably, become a torturing nation, indeed, a murdering nation. All the top officials responsible for the torture — President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, Generals Sanchez and Miller, now Attorney General Gonzalez, Attorney Yoo, and all so many others — were rewarded with promotions and honors. The military, CIA, and private contractor interrogators who directed the torture on a day-to-day basis were protected. A few soldiers who did what was wanted by the higher ups were court marshaled.
An important lesson of this film is that we only know about Abu Ghraib because of the pictures. There were numerous previous reports of abuses there, but they were not reported, not even dismissed, by the media, and the American public didn’t know. Americans, and the American Psychological Association, can only maintain the fiction that horrible abuse is not a routine everyday occurrence at Guantanamo and numerous other US detention facilities because there are no cameras.
One of Secretary Rumsfeld’s first actions upon learning of Abu Ghraib abuse, was to ban cameras in detention facilities. Any country truly committed to preventing torture should hand out free cameras to every guard.
The American people learned of Abu Ghraib in Spring 2004. They did not demand punishment for the responsible officials. They reelected the torturer-in-chief that fall. The American people decided to close their eyes to the horrors committed in their name. They thereby became accomplices to torture.
Among the many crimes of the Bush administration, Leonard Rubenstein, Executive Director of Physicians for Human Rights points to another in a Washington Post op-ed. The administration is rejecting the asylum requests of doctors and other health professionals because they acted as doctors and provided medical care to wounded combatants, sometimes under duress, without first giving them a loyalty oath. It seems this falls under the over-arching category of “providing material aid to terrorists”:
Doctors Without Refuge
By Leonard S. Rubenstein
In war, health workers are often heroes and often victims. Though the Geneva Conventions are supposed to protect them as they fulfill their ethical duty to provide care to wounded combatants without regard to affiliation — what is known as medical neutrality — they frequently become targets by attending to the enemies of one side or another.
The United States has always stood up for the protection of health workers in war, condemning violations of medical neutrality. And until now, it has offered asylum to doctors, nurses and other health workers forced to flee their home countries after they complied with their obligations to treat any and all wounded. But in another instance of the corrosion of human rights that has been the hallmark of this administration since Sept. 11, 2001 — including torture, secret detention and denial of due process — the Department of Homeland Security is contesting asylum requests by health workers whose lives are at risk for having provided assistance to wounded members of rebel groups.
The government claims that providing such medical care amounts to prohibited “material support” to terrorists and thus is a basis for denying asylum. Its position is as radical a departure from past practice — where it protested interference with a physician’s duty to treat without political distinction — as it is chilling. For example, the State Department’s human rights report for 1999 condemned the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic for having “threatened and intimidated doctors working in the province to prevent them from treating [Kosovo Liberation Army] members.”
The reversal is even more dramatically illustrated by the position the U.S. government took regarding a physician caught up in the brutal war in Chechnya. Performing surgery in late 1999 and early 2000 under conditions resembling those of the American Civil War, this doctor adhered to the highest traditions of medicine and medical ethics and saved the lives of civilians, Russian soldiers and Chechen rebels. Because he treated fighters from both sides, though, the physician became a target of Russian forces as well as the rebel groups. The rebels distrusted and threatened him while Russian forces labeled him the “bandit doctor.” He was detained overnight and later warned by both Russian and Chechen fighters that he could be arrested and executed.
The doctor escaped and, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, made his way to the United States. When he applied for asylum, his request, as someone persecuted for upholding medical ethics in wartime, was granted in a mere two weeks.
But now the U.S. government is appealing an immigration judge’s decision granting asylum to a Nepalese health worker who was twice kidnapped by a Maoist group that wanted him to attend to a wounded rebel. It rejected the asylum claim of a Colombian nurse who was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, assaulted and forced at gunpoint to provide medical care to its members.
These actions are part of a larger and disturbing pattern of denying asylum even for victims of the most horrific human rights violations. A report by Human Rights First last year showed how the Department of Homeland Security’s interpretation of the ban on providing “material support” to terrorists has extended to victims of abuse, such as a journalist who gave money to a rebel group after being beaten and a fisherman who was abducted and forced to pay ransom for his release.
The administration’s interpretation goes far beyond what the law requires. Indeed, medical care is not even included among the practices Congress listed as amounting to “material support.” In response to an outcry about its policy, the administration said it would offer selected waivers from the “material support” exclusion. While providing justice for some, that stance doesn’t begin to restore the commitment to refugee protection that has been central to our values and our policies.
Congress must revise the law to protect medical ethics and restore America’s commitment to being a place of refuge for those fleeing persecution. This step is also essential to revive principles of medical neutrality. Just as the government diminished itself and U.S. standing by adopting perverse interpretations of law and medical ethics to justify torture and to enlist doctors’ help in breaking down detainees, it is undermining America’s long and critical support for medical services for the wounded in war.
The writer is executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.
Steven Mile, author of the seminal Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror, has a new paper in The American Journal of Bioethics, Medical Ethics and the Interrogation of Guantanamo 063. This paper details the systematic torture of Prisoner 063, Mohammed al-Qahtani at Guananamo. This interrogation is especially important because Time magazine obtained and posted an extensive interrogation log for this case. Also, of special relevance to psychologists, BSCT psychologist Major John Leso was present for the interrogation and contributed to Mr. al-Qahtani’s suffering. Contrary to the unsubstantiated claims of the American Psychological Association, Major Leso did not contribute toward making the interrogation “safe and effective,” but toward making it brutal and sadistic, making a mockery of the APA’s position. Of course, as in every other instance of reports of torture or abuse involving BSCT psychologists, the APA has been totally silent about Major Leso’s involvement. Their silence speaks volumes.