December 06, 2011

Riddle: What is torture in Bahrain but not in the US?

An interesting report came out last week. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) investigating the protests in Bahrain delivered its report last week and said that the Bahraini government had used "excessive force and torture" on demonstrators. (The full report can be read here.) This was significant in that the authoritarian Bahraini government that was responsible for those actions, and was aided by the Saudi Arabian military in its harsh crackdown, was still in power. The fact that they created a commission and allowed such a report to be released is a tribute to the fact that popular protests seen worldwide against the repressive government had created considerable pressure on even such a government to try and mitigate the damage.

The commission used as its definition of torture Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment that says that:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

But although the report said that the government had used torture, the news reports that I read in the US were curiously coy about exactly what actions were considered to be torture. However much I searched for them, I could not get the details. For example, this typical report in the New York Times, which prides itself on being 'the newspaper of record' and usually provides the most details in US media shows how they skated over the issue:

Five detainees were tortured to death while in custody, the panel concluded, and other detainees endured electric shocks and were beaten with rubber hoses and wires.

In Washington, the Obama administration welcomed the report, but said the onus was now on Bahrain's government to hold accountable those responsible for abuses and to undertake reforms to make sure they do not occur again.

The subtle implication in this report is that being given electric shocks or beaten with rubber hoses and wires was not part of the torture regimen. I finally found an NPR story that provided more details.

Using words like torture, mistreatment and threatened rape, the head of the commission said the kinds of things that are rarely said out loud — especially in the conservative, oil-rich Gulf.

The commission head, Cherif Bassiouni, listed abuses he says were committed against protesters who were detained: They were blindfolded, forced to stand for long periods of time, whipped, beaten, subjected to electric shock, deprived of sleep, and exposed to high temperatures and insults.

These acts, Bassiouni said, amounted to torture. [My emphasis]

I now understood why the mainstream media was shy about specifying the acts. These are the very same actions, or even worse, that are done by the US on its detainees and since the US media is deferential to the claims by the US government that it does not torture, this element of the Bahraini report must have caused considerable cognitive dissonance and had to be suppressed. In the US, in an effort to excuse the Bush administration from war crimes, there was hesitancy to say that even waterboarding was torture, so all these other forms of torture have to be also not mentioned.

Eric Lewis, a lawyer whose efforts to prosecute Donald Rumsfeld and the military chain of command for torture were opposed by the Obama administration, blasts Obama for his hypocrisy on torture, comparing his statements as a candidate with his actions as president, and says that by not prosecuting those who committed such acts, he has left the door wide open for the use of torture by any future president.

The president has rejected three clear opportunities to erect a high legal wall against the return of torture: he has made it clear that criminal prosecutions for torture will not go forward; he has opposed the creation of a truth commission to examine events comprehensively; and he has affirmatively intervened to stop civil litigation by detainees against their torturers.

Had President Obama shown the courage of candidate Obama, he would have strongly supported civil litigation under the Constitution against officials who authorized torture. The argument that it involves the courts in foreign policy or causes officials to be wary in their actions is nonsense. The ban on torture should be absolute; it is not a foreign policy or defense issue and it is salutary for officials to know that they will be held accountable for torture.

The Obama administration can't just say, "Trust us." Its challenge was not only to stop the American government from torturing detainees, but to institutionalize the legal infrastructure that would prevent the resumption of torture. President Obama had the opportunity to leave an unambiguous legal legacy that prohibited torture and inhibited the torturers of tomorrow from finding legal cover. Instead, we may reap the whirlwind of his timidity, and soon.

Until such time as we are willing to bring those who commit torture to justice, irrespective of who and where they are, these abuses will continue.


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Government officials will continue to torture its citizen if they are not prosecuted correctly or their actions go ignored. We have a right as citizens to protest peacefully and not to be pepper sprayed or beaten for speaking out. I hope the Bush Administration take notices to this actions of torture and prevent them for going on.

Posted by Lee on December 6, 2011 12:52 PM

Is torture right or wrong?
If torturing someone saved 5 lives is it still wrong?
If torturing someone saved 500 lives is it still wrong?
I think in extreme circumstances some form of persuasion can be justified but it should be monitored and not allowed to get out of hand.

Posted by Jasper Woking on December 6, 2011 05:08 PM

Jasper, there is a lot of evidence that discredits those hoary "ticking time bomb" arguments. Basically, when you torture someone to get them to talk, they'll simply tell you whatever you want to hear to make the pain stop. It's the same principle that lies behind the surprising number of false confessions elicited by police applying extreme psychological pressure to suspects.

There is no justification for torture, not ever, under any circumstances. It is as ineffective as an interrogation tool as it is immoral.

Posted by Steve LaBonne on December 7, 2011 01:16 PM

Steve, I do agree with your position. However, I think we must admire that Jasper is making a fundamental utilitarianism argument. The greater good of many may be preserved through torturing a select few. But, as you state, Jasper's position is flawed because you cannot rely on the statements of a tortured prisoner, and thus the greater good of many will not necessarily be preserved through torturing a few.

Posted by Adjustable Beds on December 22, 2011 08:17 PM