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Dennis Hans: St. Petersburg Times Slanders Amnesty

St. Petersburg Times Slanders Amnesty International

By Dennis Hans

The editorial page of the St. Petersburg Times, under the direction of Philip Gailey,.hit Amnesty International (AI) and its secretary-general, Irene Khan, with several low blows in the May 27 editorial “American ‘gulag’?”

One can only hope that this will bring to an end Gailey’s dreadful 14-year reign as editorial page editor. If that happens, I offer this advice to his successor: Don’t use the word “fabricates” in an editorial denouncing someone else unless (1) you know you are right, and (2) you don’t engage in the same offense yourself.

The Times would have been wise to limit its criticism of Khan to her foolish, needlessly controversial reference to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo as the “gulag of our times.” However bad the situation at Guantanamo may be, it’s absurd to compare it to the prison system that is associated with the word “gulag” — the secret prisons of the Soviet Union under Stalin, where millions were killed, starved or worked to death.

Choosing words with care is not only the right thing for human rights organizations to do, it’s the smart thing. It makes no sense for AI to give its enemies — including governments that are criticized in AI’s generally excellent reports — a handy club with which to beat it and undermine its credibility. Khan and other AI officials have since pointed out that the far-flung secret prisons run by the U.S. military and the CIA (rather than Guantanamo by itself) is similar to the gulag system in some respects, but not all, and that AI did not mean to imply and equivalent human toll. Khan should either have made that clear from the start or, better yet, dropped the expression “gulag of our times” from her foreword to AI’s 2005 report on human-rights conditions around the world.

But here is the difference between Khan’s 1803-word foreword ( and the Times’ editorial:

Remove the “gulag” line and we’re left with a thoughtful essay by a serious, well-informed and well-intentioned person. The editorial, on the other hand, delivers a series of cheapshots that make it clear that the editors either didn’t bother to read Khan’s foreword, or deliberately ripped sentences out of context to twist her meaning and make her appear foolish and loathsome.

Consider this passage from the editorial:

“Khan's introduction to Amnesty International's latest annual report reveals an ideological bias that magnifies the faults of the United States while essentially ignoring those responsible for far more grievous abuses. Blaming the ethnic slaughter in Darfur, Sudan, on ‘indifference, erosion and impunity that marks the human rights landscape today,’ Khan zeros in on her target. ‘The USA, as the unrivalled political, military and economic hyper-power, sets the tone for governmental behaviour worldwide.’ And we thought the genocide in Darfur was being committed by militia groups supported by the Sudanese government . . . .”

In fact, the very first lines of Khan’s “foreword” (the “introduction” is a distinct section that Khan didn’t write) recounts her visit to Darfur and a conversation with a woman who described a recent “attack on her village by government-supported militia.” Khan writes, “So many men were killed that there were none left to bury the dead, and women had to carry out that sad task. I listened to young girls who had been raped by the militia and then abandoned by their own communities. I listened to men who had lost everything except their sense of dignity.”

When Khan says “impunity” (exemption from punishment) is a key factor contributing to the slaughter, she’s BLAMING the Sudanese government, not giving it a free pass. If the Times editors were as familiar with AI’s work as they lead readers to believe, they would know that AI has repeatedly pointed out that the militias and government forces feel free to rape and murder civilians because the Sudanese authorities give them a green light and refuse to punish the perpetrators. See, for example, the 2004 AI report “No one to complain to: No respite for the victims, impunity for the perpetrators” (

AI has taken many governments to task, from Honduras to Zimbabwe, for granting impunity to human rights abusers. It also has criticized other governments, including our own, for granting impunity to higher ups while prosecuting low-ranking soldiers for crimes that had the blessing of senior commanders and high-level civilian officials.

To be fair to the Times, there is such a thing as international impunity: If the world sees what is going on in Darfur and refuses to act, the world is, in effect, granting the Sudanese government impunity, just as that government grants impunity to militias that rape and murder.

Khan addresses impunity’s international dimension in her foreword:

“Today, the UN appears unable and unwilling to hold its member states to account. In the latest incident of paralysis, the UN Security Council has failed to muster the will to take effective action on Darfur. In this case it was held hostage to China's oil interests and Russia's trade in arms.”

Does that sound like a blame-America-first lunatic?

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the editorial passage quoted above is that the Times doesn’t tell its readers that Khan is not talking about Darfur when the Times says she “zeros in on her target” — the U.S. government. In fact, Khan had moved on from Darfur to address several other topics — AIDS in Africa; economic and social rights; violence against women; torture around the globe in 1973, when AI wrote its first report on torture; the torture and detention scandals currently enveloping the Bush administration. That last topic, not ethnic slaughter in Sudan, led Khan directly to the sentence ripped out of context by the Times: “The USA, as the unrivalled political, military and economic hyper-power, sets the tone for governmental behaviour worldwide.”

Khan immediately followed that sentence with this:

“When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a licence to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity. From Israel to Uzbekistan, Egypt to Nepal, governments have openly defied human rights and international humanitarian law in the name of national security and ‘counter-terrorism.’”

Some readers might disagree with Khan’s thesis or take issue with her list of examples, but her basic point has been made frequently by mainstream U.S. commentators. For example, the hawkish Washington Post recently explained why it has written so many editorials on the prisoner-abuse scandals: “We have done so not only because the phenomenon is disturbing in its own right but also because it gives undemocratic regimes around the world an excuse to justify their own use of torture and indefinite detention. . . .”

For the Times to rip Khan’s words out of context to make it sound like she’s blaming the U.S. for ethnic slaughter in Sudan is really quite despicable.

For more examples of the Times’ sliming techniques, consider this passage from the editorial:

“The United Nations has been impotent to act on behalf of the victims [in Darfur], but Khan fabricates a different villain: U.S. foreign policy that ‘grants a license to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity.’ Even the humiliations of Abu Ghraib, as distasteful as they were, are hardly the equivalent of the Iraqi terrorists' beheadings of innocent bystanders.”

As we’ve seen, (1) Khan did in fact blame the U.N. Security Council, in particular Russia and China, for inaction on Darfur, and (2) her “grants a license” line was far removed from her discussion of Darfur. Perhaps the editorialist was thinking of a speech Khan delivered May 25 (the day AI released its annual report), where she specifically implicated the U.S. in the world’s failure to intervene effectively in Darfur:

“The government of Sudan betrayed the people of Darfur by unleashing a campaign of killing, rape, displacement and destruction. But the UN also betrayed them by doing too little too late. The people of Darfur were held hostage to China’s oil interests, Russia’s arms trade and the US’s aversion to the International Criminal Court.” (

Alas, that doesn’t quite sound like a devious ideologue intent on blaming America, rather than the government of Sudan, for the crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Returning to Khan’s foreword, far from overlooking the U.N. in a sleazy attempt to paint the U.S. as the “villain,” as the Times alleges, Khan calls on the “UN and its member states” to “Reform the UN’s human rights machinery urgently and radically in order to improve its legitimacy, efficiency and effectiveness. In particular, strengthen the capacity of the UN and regional organizations to protect people at risk of human rights abuse.” She urges Security Council members to “commit themselves not to use the veto in dealing with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes or other large-scale human rights abuses.”

And while the Times implies that Khan ignores or can’t get worked up over the ghastly beheadings by Iraqi terrorists, she in fact calls on the “UN and its member states” to “Condemn unequivocally human rights abuses by those who have taken humanity to new depths of bestiality and brutality by blowing up commuter trains in Madrid, taking school children hostage in Beslan, and beheading humanitarian workers in Iraq, but stand firm on the governments’ responsibility to bring them to justice within the rule of law and the framework of human rights.”

The Times owes Amnesty International and Irene Khan an apology, and it owes its readers a public, transparent investigation into the process by which this disgraceful editorial was researched, written, edited and approved.


©2005 by Dennis Hans

Bio: Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. His writings on a host of topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, National Catholic Reporter and, among other outlets. Prior to the Iraq war, Hans published the prescient essays “Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His ‘Techniques of Deceit’” ( and “The Disinformation Age” ( Many of his basketball analyses can be found here: He can be reached at

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