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Sonia Nettnin: Abuse of U.S. Prisoners Abroad

Abuse of U.S. Prisoners Abroad

By Sonia Nettnin

Important Note: the following article is not intended for readers under 18 years of age or for sensitive readers.

(Chicago) – Human rights lawyer and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s Stop Torture Permanently Campaign Director Jennifer Harbury spoke about U.S. prisoners abroad and their experiences with abuse and torture.

For the last 20 years Harbury worked for reforms in human rights violations committed by the United States. She wrote about her first-hand experiences in the book, “Searching for Everardo,” which chronicles her efforts to save the life of her late husband, Mayan resistance leader Efrain (Everardo) Bamaca Velasquez in the early ‘90s. Moreover, she is the author of “Bridge of Courage.” Her forthcoming third book documents the Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement with torture in Latin America and the Middle East.

According to the UUSC web site, the organization initiated the STOP Campaign in 2004 “…in response to the human rights crisis created by the U.S. torture and abuse of detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.”

In her introduction Harbury said: “Anyone…who believes in the basic value system of our (American) society were horrified by the torture practices that occurred in Abu Ghraib, that maybe somehow we would lose our national conscience.”

In the past, whenever she gave talks to Americans throughout the U.S., the universal reaction she experienced from audience members was outrage. Some Republican voters expressed to her that they voted for a particular candidate, but not for torture.

“We are facing a moral crisis,” Harbury said, who believes many high-level officials decided to de facto legalized torture.

Her lecture focused on the U.S. Government’s responses to the political, legal and national security issues surrounding the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. She summarized the government’s responses as follows: it was a few, rogue operators; second, the abuses within U.S. prisons were just short of the legal limits of torture, but protected by the established guidelines; and finally, in the aftermath of 09/11 U.S. administrative officials want to keep Americans safe.

First, Harbury answered with a rhetorical question: are these explanations provoking the entire world and creating anti-American sentiment?

The official response from U.S. officials that the torture at Abu Ghraib happened as a result of a few contractors and Military Personnel, “a few bad apples,” is false. The Abu Ghraib photographs exhibited some of the torture practices, as well as the use of cruel and degrading treatment. The UUSC web site references the Abu Ghraib photograph of a hooded Iraqi with wires attached to his fingers. They call this pose the “Vietnam position,” hence the phrase has warfare meaning associated with it.

According to Harbury the abuse and torture practices used in prisons, like Abu Ghraib, are methods refined by different intelligence agencies over decades.

Torture Methods & Procedures

What is the definition of torture?

According to the U.N. Convention Against Torture (as explained on the UUSC web site), ‘torture’ is any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether mental or physical, is intentionally inflicted on a person by any government official or agent. This includes acts of torture inflicted at the request of, or with the consent of, government officials as well.

For instance, in a water-boarding session, they tie up the person, submerge him in water then drown him into convulsions and unconsciousness. Immediately after they use cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), until they revive him into consciousness.

Some other examples are denial of toilet privileges, prolonged exposure to hot and cold by clothing removal and/or water, loud music, sleep deprivation, “stress and duress” positions, and solitary confinement. Usually, detainees subjected to torture will experience these practices in combinations. She described one case where a man sat naked, short-bolted to a floor for 24 hours. With the exception of solitary confinement, they subjected him to these torture practices to the point he pulled out clumps of his hair. The fact he acted on his distress demonstrates that torture practices may cause mental breakdowns.

In Afghanistan a warlord threw a bomb at a U.S. military base. U.S. Forces captured a man who had nothing to do with the incident. While imprisoned they hit the man’s leg over 100 times. As a result of his “pulpification,” the man developed a blood clot in his leg and it killed him.

When they slam prisoners’ heads into walls, it is not uncommon for the prisoners to die from it. During gang rapes they film the victim, and then tell her they will show it to her parents, and/or air the tape in her hometown’s public square. The verbal threats terrorize the victim, but public knowledge of her rape can stigmatize her within the community.

Harbury investigated prisoners who endured electric shock during their tortures. Out of 23 cases in Guatemala and El Salvador, the survivors testified to shock techniques. During their tortures, a North American was either present in or around the cell.

In 2004, Harbury traveled to Israel and the Occupied Territories where she worked with civil rights workers from B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights center that examines human rights violations. Although she did not describe specific torture examples, she said that Israel used torture techniques deemed illegal by Israeli law, but the government does not enforce it. A 1999 study from civil rights workers found that 80 per cent of prisoners experienced abuse and/or torture.

Harbury studied cases that involved suicide bombings. In the first intifada there were 50 and during the second intifada there were close to 150. Out of 50 cases she gathered she found that three of the suicide bombers did not experience the loss of a family member. Her overall conclusion was that Palestinians who grew up under extreme security crackdowns, who lived in Gaza, Jenin and Ramallah, had one common denominator: severe trauma, the loss of a family member.

During her research Harbury found that U.S. intelligent services “outsourced” detainees or deportees for interrogations to countries such as Egypt, Guatemala and Syria, and they call this transfer practice “extraordinary rendition.” She assessed that they paid informants associated with their networks to extract information out of people.

When the Guatemala military imprisoned and tortured her late husband, she worked to save his life. Three hunger strikes later, the last strike on the lawn of the White House, U.S. officials and declassified files informed her that a man named Roberto ordered her husband’s murder and someone received $34,000 U.S. dollars (not a routine payment) from a remote outpost that had associations with the CIA. She calls this procedure “torture by proxy.” The U.S. response is that these countries assured the U.S. the transferred prisoners would not experience torture. If they do, then it is not the fault of the U.S.

Does torture happen to U.S. citizens?

In Central America, they gang raped a nun who is a U.S. citizen and she received cigarette burns. Then they hung her to a ceiling until her hands and feet turned black. Even today, she has bad tendons in her shoulders. When an agent arrived to save her, he dressed her and took her out of the prison. While they were driving away he told her to forgive these people because they were busy fighting Communism. The next day she traveled to the U.S. Embassy where she told officials that there were children in the prison.

According to Harbury there are at least 100 CIA ghost prisoners, which means the International Red Cross does not know their names, their imprisonment locations, the state of their health conditions, and whether they are dead or alive.

Domestic and International Law on Torture

According to the UUSC web site, “the constitution prohibits torture in any form within the United States. The use of torture by U.S. agents or officials outside the U.S. is a felony, under both the Anti-Torture Statute (18 U.S.C. 2340) and also the Federal War Crimes Act.”

The Geneva Conventions, created by people who saw the realities of World War II and Auschwitz, prohibit the use of torture. Harbury explained that the U.S. Government’s stance is that the prisoner of war status documented in the Third Geneva Convention does not apply to enemy combatants. Her retort to this interpretation of the law is that the Fourth Geneva Convention is for civilians, non-POWs. Under this umbrella, anyone who commits sabotage against an occupying force cannot be treated inhumanely.

The UUSC web site further explains “…the Convention Against Torture bans the torture of any human being under any circumstances, even during times of war. So does the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.”

Despite these legal protections the enforcement of international law fell short for these detainees and current U.S. mainstream media coverage focuses on whether they received legal representation and due process. If the world sees U.S. forces abuse and torture prisoners, what happens to the safety of U.S. service men and women when they fall into the hands of U.S. opposition?

Harbury shared her legal knowledge, research and personal experiences with the application of U.S. policy abroad. The UUSC web site references methods, such as FBI and police questioning or the use of local religious leaders when they question a terrorist suspect, to gather information that keeps the public safe. The international body wrote the Geneva Conventions so people would adhere to them, not abandon them. Harbury’s findings raise questions for discussion about the body politic and the organizations that critique them.

First and foremost, people need access to information so they can determine the truth.


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.

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