Friday, June 25, 2004

Abu Ghraib Photographs as Blinkers

Slavoj Zizek claims that, "[i]nstead of the direct, brutal infliction of pain, the US soldiers focused on psychological humiliation" ("Between Two Deaths: The Culture of Torture," London Review of Books 26.11, June 3, 2004). Zizek, like George Neumayr and Rush Limbaugh, compares the US torture of Iraqis to fraternity hazing and Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. If not just right-wing ideologues like Neumayr and Limbaugh but also liberals like Zizek can block out images and reports of torture that involves "the direct, brutal infliction of pain," it is safe to conclude that Abu Ghraib photographs of naked Iraqi captives have become not so much revelations as blinkers.

One of the earliest reports of the US-led coalition troops' torture and murder of Iraqi detainees came from Amnesty International last year -- "Memorandum on Concerns Relating to Law and Order" (Amnesty International, July 23, 2003), which was not ignored by the print media:
Iraqis detained by U.S. troops have complained of torture and degrading treatment, Amnesty International said Wednesday [July 23, 2003].

There were also reports of troops shooting detainees, the London-based human rights watchdog said in a report based on interviews with former prisoners of the Americans across Iraq.

Iraqis detained by U.S. troops accused their captors of torture and degrading treatment, rights group Amnesty International reported on July 23, 2003, calling on the occupying forces to bring human rights violators to justice. Detainees also said troops had shot some captives, the London-based rights watchdog reported, in a study based on interviews with former prisoners of U.S. forces across Iraq.

Amnesty staff heard complaints that included prolonged sleep deprivation and detainees being forced to stay in painful positions or wear hoods over their heads for long periods.

"Such treatment would amount to 'torture and inhumane treatment' prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention and by international human rights law," Amnesty said. . . .

Amnesty has said thousands are held in prisons run by U.S. troops. They include Abu Ghraib, one the most feared jails under Saddam, and Camp Cropper near Baghdad's airport.

The human rights group said it had received several reports of cases of detainees who have died in custody, "mostly as a result of shooting by members of the coalition forces." (Reuters, "Amnesty: Iraqis Complain of Torture by U.S. Forces," July 23, 2003)
Activists also heard stories like this one about a young man picked up by US soldiers at the Souk el-bayâaa market:
I couldn't believe my eyes! Is it so easy to torture someone in an Iraq liberated from Saddam?

Yet the marks on the body of Al-Mountadhar Fadhel, a young Iraqi student of 23 years old, were so undeniably real, shocking, and above all completely unacceptable. . . .

"The only words I kept repeating non-stop were, "I did nothing! Let me go!" Shortly after, I was picked up and my head was shaved. "I had long hair," said Al-Mountadhar with a note of regret in his voice. Next, I was pushed face towards the wall and my hands were tied above my head. When the first blows hit my body, I couldn't stop myself from crying, not so much because of the pain, but because I found all of this so incredibly unjust coming from those who were claiming they had come to liberate us from the oppression of Saddam. They beat me for hours. It was an eternity. At each blow from what seemed to be a thick cable, I felt my flesh tear. I could hardly hear the words of my torturer, "To teach you to push an American back. Why did you push an American back?" I lost consciousness several times, but each time was revived. It was horrible. I had never thought I would live such an experience outside Saddam's regime." (Zahira Houfani/Iraqi Solidarity Project, "Human Rights American Style [Part II]: The Torturers Have Changed, the Victims Stay the Same," Occupation Watch, July 30, 2003)
A hint of women being subjected to the same treatment as men also made an appearance last year:
[M]uch of what detainees saw was intolerable, Naif said, "especially when we saw Iraqi women punished in the same way as men.''

When one detainee shouted to his sister in a nearby women's tent, the guards punished the woman, Naif said. Seeing her lying bound in the sun, the brother angrily started to cross the razor wire ringing his tent, "and they shot him in the shoulder," Naif said.

"The worst thing was their treatment of the women," said Saad Naif, who spent time both at the airport and at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where tents spread across the prison yards.

"Innocent women were kept for months in the same clothes," he said. He said he remembered in particular an elderly woman "whose hands were tied up and she was lying in the dust.''

Saad Naif said he saw a prisoner shot dead at Abu Ghraib when he approached the razor wire. (The Associated Press, "Iraqis Tell Grim Stories of U.S.-run Camps," Toronto Star, October 29, 2003)
Reports of electric torture surfaced, too, in the aforementioned Amnesty International report and journalists' investigations:
  • Sadiq Zoman Abrahim, 55 years old, was detained this past August in Kirkuk by US Soldiers during a home raid which produced no weapons. He was taken to the police office in Kirkuk, questioned by the Americans there, then transferred to Kirkuk Airport Detention Center.

    It was from this detention center he was transferred to Tikrit Airport Detention Center. While in this detention center Mr. Abrahim managed to find a man who was about to be released, and have him pass on to his family information about where he was.

    It was from this place that the Americans transferred him, comatose, to the hospital in Tikrit.

    Acting on this information the family searched the hospital, but was unable to find him. While there, hospital staff (who wish to remain anonymous) informed them they had someone in a coma by the name of Abrahim Sadiq Zoman, who was dropped off two days prior by the Americans.

    According to staff at the hospital, the only information provided by the Americans was the incorrect name and a medical report which said Mr. Abrahim had suffered a heart attack. They provided no information as to where he had been picked up, no address and no other personal information.

    It is documented by both the hospital and Iraqi Red Crescent in Tikrit (who took the photos of Mr. Abrahim), that the Americans dropped the comatose man off with the aforementioned information. Before his family had found him, the Iraqi Red Crescent had posted photos of Mr. Abrahim on buses leaving Tikrit in hopes of someone recognizing him, as noone in the city knew who he was.

    In the photos taken by the Red Crescent, Mr. Abrahim appears with long hair and an unshaven, scruffy face. The staff at the hospital shaved him, and cleaned up his ragged appearance.

    The doctors at the hospital in Tikrit, after performing diagnostic tests, informed the family that Mr. Abrahim had suffered massive head trauma, electrocution, and other bruises on his arms. An EKG proved that his heart was functioning perfectly. The family was told that he was in an unrecoverable state and would be in a coma for the rest of his life from the obvious trauma suffered.

    The family decided to take him to Haitha, where CT and CAT scans proved the man was in a hopeless condition. In despair, the family then took Mr. Abrahim to Baghdad, where the same tests verified his vegetative state as being permanent.

    Now, today, three months later Mr. Abrahim lies dormant, his eyes staring blankly at the ceiling, blinking slowly from time to time, yet completely unresponsive to any stimuli.

    This horrible situation raises many questions.

    If the Americans knew who he was and where he was when they detained him, why did they fail to provide this information to the hospital when Mr. Abrahim was dropped off?

    Why did the Americans fail to notify the hospital of Mr. Abrahim having an accident if there had been one?

    How do you explain the massive head trauma, the burns on the bottoms of his feet caused by electrocution and bruises on his arms, if he had only suffered a heart attack as the medical report provided by the Americans states? (Is the US military torturing Iraqis with electricity? (Dahr Jamail, "Is the US Military Torturing Iraqis with Electricity?" Electronic Iraq, January 8, 2004)

  • A widower and the father of two young boys, Baha al-Maliki worked as a hotel receptionist in the Iraqi city of Basra until September 14 of last year. That day, British soldiers arrested him and seven other hotel workers, saying they had found a stash of weapons hidden in the hotel. His family learned nothing of his whereabouts until three days later, when British soldiers came to their door to tell them he was dead. When al-Maliki’s father retrieved his body from the hospital, according to Amnesty International’s Khaled Chibane, "it was severely bruised and covered in blood." The cause of death listed on his death certificate, says Chibane, was asphyxiation, apparently from being hooded during his interrogation. "It was obvious that he had died," Chibane says, "as a result of torture."

    Al-Maliki is not the only Iraqi to have died under disturbing circumstances while detained by coalition forces. Though they have received minimal attention in the U.S. press, allegations of mistreatment of detainees have been surfacing persistently for at least the last six months. The allegations range from generalized neglect — unsanitary conditions and exposure to the elements — to beatings, electric shock and other forms of torture. (Ben Ehrenreich, "The Torture Files: Iraqi Detainees Allege Mistreatment and Abuse," LA Weekly, February 6-12, 2004)
Here's one of the latest reports: according to Douglas Jehl of the New York Times, "Beatings were accepted enough at Abu Ghraib that some soldiers recorded the number of stitches their victims required with tack marks on the wall. In the worst cases in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuse resulted in deaths, including 10 cases now being investigated as homicides" ("Rules on Prisoners Seen as Sending Mixed Messages to G.I.'s," June 22, 2004). Even if you take the view of the US Justice Department that, for an act to qualify as physical torture, it "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" (Mike Allen and Dana Priest, "Memo on Torture Draws Focus to Bush: Aide Says President Set Guidelines for Interrogations, Not Specific Techniques," Washington Post, June 9, 2004, p. A3), you would have to conclude that the occupiers have committed countless acts of physical torture. Why, then, is painful and sometimes deadly physical torture of Iraqis by the occupiers invisible to not only Limbaughs but also Zizeks, even though Abu Ghraib photographs themselves contain images of death (see below)?

Have they managed to overlook the photographs of the Iraqi dead accidentally? Not very likely. Then, what exactly makes them turn a blind eye to some of the most widely disseminated images of death by torture in the history of photography?

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