Sunday, December 25, 2011



The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration and Abuse
Edited by Marjorie Kohn
New York University Press, 2011

This review was first published in Toward Freedom here.

The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration and Abuse (New York University Press, 2011) is a treatise which, through detailed essays, recollections, evidence and testimonies, explores the subject of torture through three main sections – the history of US torture, the torture of prisoners in custody, and accountability for torture.

Washington's role in torture has long been established through its support of military and right wing dictatorships in Latin America. As narrated in the preface by Sister Dianna Ortiz, abducted and tortured in Guatemala in 1984 for aiding the poor, the perpetrators of torture were sanctioned and sheltered by the US government. Years after her release, Ortiz’s efforts to pursue justice were met with denial from the government due to its mission to protect torturers from prosecution. Ortiz had been warned not to divulge any names; government officials from Guatemala and the US had denounced the torture as a fabrication aimed at preventing the US from giving Guatemala military aid.

The pattern of torture, denial and injustice in Latin America was applied to similar scenarios in other countries, such as the US’s support of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran, whose secret police, the Savak, trained by the CIA, were responsible for thousands of dissidents’ deaths.

The discourse on torture was propelled to prominence in the aftermath of 9/11. President George W. Bush’s aim to split recollection of torture into pre- and post 9/11 attempted to justify contemporary torture while detaching the US’s historical involvement in torture. With Bush’s War on Terror targeting Afghanistan and Iraq, torture became a flaunted conspiracy, with rhetoric from government officials standing in stark contrast to the evidence produced from inspections in the countries.

The invasion of Afghanistan under the pretext of hunting down Osama bin Laden and his allies resulted in extensive and extreme torture. Marjorie Kohn discusses the disregard for human rights in the context of a documentary produced in 2002, entitled Afghan Massacre. Three thousand Taliban prisoners of war were rounded up and transported to interrogation buildings in cramped and unventilated conditions. Air was provided, according to the testimony of an Afghan soldier, by shooting at the containers holding the people, resulting in many deaths. Their corpses were thrown into the desert and devoured by dogs - a spectacle which was watched by around 30 American soldiers. The practice of summary execution was later admitted by Bush in 2003, “All told, more that 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries ... Let’s put it this way – they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.”

Extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation techniques and the Combatant Status Review Tribunal were put into use by the Bush Administration in their handling of terror suspects. Interrogation techniques, some practices drawn from the Cold War era and others as a result of studying psychological manipulation, were drafted into memos, paying extreme attention to avoid implicating the president in criminal liability under the US War Crimes Act. The American Psychological Association allowed its members to take part in detainee interrogations. In his essay Stephen Stolz notes that the APA “encouraged, indeed asserted without evidence, the necessity of having psychologists aid the interrogations.” John Leso, a member of the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCT) was present during torture which involved 80 hours of continuous interrogation and eventual hospitalization for induced hypothermia. Despite not having reported against the witnessed abuses, Leso remained on good terms with the APA.

Most of the evidence extracted forcibly from detainees was false, garnered after driving the detainee to mental defeat through enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. Having signed a memo stating that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Bush approved the use of waterboarding, (authorized by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Ashcroft and Powell), on Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, accused of being the mastermind behind 9/11. Jane Myer reiterates that the waterboarding torture of detainee Ibn Sheikh al Libi resulted in erroneous information which was used to bolster Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. Attempts by detainees to protest against the inhumane treatment are smothered quickly; hunger strikes are met with force feeding, in which the detainee has a tube inserted through the nostrils into the stomach without being given any sedative or anaesthetic, despite force feeding having been classified as torture by the United Nations.


Lance Tapley’s discussion of torture focuses on the systematic abuses in the US super maximum security prisons. A brief statistical introduction portrays the high percentage of non-white inmates – two thirds are black or Hispanic. Interrogation techniques are conducted on a parallel with overseas torture methods applied by the US. Indeed, in the introduction Cohn mentions John Armstrong as having headed the Connecticut Department of Corrections until 2003, when he was dispatched to Iraq in the role of prison adviser. The brutal method of cell extraction, in which guards mace, beat and sexually humiliate the prisoner leaves little avenue for prisoners to challenge these abuses due to restrictions on inmates lawsuits as decreed by the 1996 Prison Litigation Act. Deteriorating mental health is punished instead of treated and, despite these prisons claiming to house violent and dangerous prisoners, there have been cases where an accusation of contraband or disobeying a guard’s orders were sufficient reason for being jailed in super maximum security prisons.

A befitting conclusion to the book by Jordan Paust expounds upon the criminal liability of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Their violation of the US constitution prohibiting torture and prosecution was swiftly acted upon by President Obama after the release of the Bradbury memos. Obama’s statement implied that the CIA taking action on ‘improper advice’ would not be prosecuted, thus creating measures of impunity. Obama’s electoral promise of change seems to have therefore withdrawn into the labyrinth of injustice created by his predecessors.


Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog here.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Twilight of Impunity: The War Crimes Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

Twilight of Impunity: The War Crimes Trial of Slobodan Milosevic
by Judith Armatta
Duke University Press, 2010

Review by Ramona Wadi

This review was first published by LSE British Politics and Policy Blog here.


In a narration which deals with the responsibility of establishing guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ within an international law framework, Judith Armatta’s detailed account of Slobodan Milosevic’s trial delves into legal ramifications, personality portrayal and testimonies, whilst exhibiting an awareness of split memory consciousness beyond the realm of legality and justice.

Butcher of the Balkans or martyr of nationalism, Slobodan Milosevic was the first leader to be internationally indicted for crimes against humanity. In a trial lasting 466 days in the span of four years, three indictments were brought against Milosevic – crimes against humanity committed in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. The Kosovo indictment charged Milosevic with international law violation including deportation, forcible transfer, murder and persecution. The Bosnia and Croatia indictments carried charges of genocide, complicity in genocide and Geneva Convention violations.

The trial was replete with contrasts – in attitude, temperament and legalities. Commencing with the prosecutor’s declaration that ‘… no one is above the law or beyond the reach of international justice’, the declaration was immediately rebutted by Milosevic’s allusions to the concept of freedom, ‘I, arrested, imprisoned, am nevertheless the free’ and his contempt of international law, as he stated ‘I challenge the very legality of this tribunal’. With a defiant attitude coupled with self-representation, Milosevic regaled the world with an insight into his construction of history.

Whether it was an attitude of detachment from, or denial of reality, Milosevic’s dismissal of atrocities jarred with the testimonies of survivors. Witnesses who survived the concentration camps recounted severe torture of the most extreme kind. These witness accounts were refuted by Milosevic, whose rhetoric countered that people were incapable of committing such evil extremes, thus detaching himself from the responsibility of the massacres.

With evidence accumulating against Milosevic, including the setting up of a Joint Command in order to bypass soldiers opposed to military action, Milosevic’s self-defence remained chaotic; a leader facing a hostile international community, at times portraying himself a victim of international conspiracy, a persecuted victim who in turn seized the opportunity to launch his own accusations against the NATO intervention. Despite evidence purporting Milosevic’s awareness of the murder rampage through communication channels, the SDB and other special reports, he continued to exhibit a detachment, claiming that his actions were classified as anti-terrorist operations, that deaths were the result of collateral damage in civil war, and at times his defence was to charge witnesses with conspiracy.

In several instances, Armatta remarks on the futility of holding NATO accountable for any deaths during its campaign. The prosecution claimed not to have enough evidence linking the people’s displacement to NATO airstrikes. General Wesley Clark was allowed to testify by the US, but only under condition that NATO would not be included in the testimony. During Clark’s testimony, the court adjourned for a few minutes to receive a fax signed by Bill Clinton which read, ‘Contrary to Mr Milosevic, General Wesley Clark carried out the policy of the NATO alliance to stop massive ethnic cleansing in Kosovo with great skill, integrity and determination.’ The categorical denial of witnesses stating that NATO inflicted no damage on the villages raised doubts of accountability; however the testimonies were not rendered invalid.

Milosevic’s death on March 11, 2006 prompted allegations of foul play, fuelled partly by a letter in which Milosevic alleged he was being poisoned. To counter the allegations, an autopsy report later stated that he died of natural causes. Past documents were also recalled, citing that since the commencement of the trial, Milosevic was said to be at great risk of cardiac arrest. The abrupt halt to Milosevic’s trial meant that charges of genocide remained unproven due to the court’s failure to establish the commencement and perpetration of the Srebrenica genocidal campaign. The culpability for genocide seems to have been resting on more Generals apart from Milosevic. In the absence of a declaration of genocidal intent, circumstantial evidence precludes a finding of genocide.

In the aftermath of Milosevic’s demise, the concept of split memory consciousness manifested itself in Serbs; with a minority of thousands hailing him as a martyr. The recollection of Milosevic as a national hero prompted outrage from his opponents, who described the homage as humiliating and tantamount to betrayal. The court’s inability to establish a widespread genocide failed to bring about closure to the survivors, in the absence of a verdict and in acknowledging the imperfections of law and justice. Also, the concept of establishing proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, as required by international law, seems to have been flawed by NATO’s assisted impunity with regard to investigation for war crimes.

Armatta’s detailed narration and analysis of Milosevic’s trial makes this book vital for students and researchers interested in the ramifications and contradictions of international law and justice. There is clarity in her portrayal of inevitable flaws within the legal system which rendered Milosevic’s trial incomplete, allowing the reader to analyse how the parameters within which ‘no one is above the law’ is rendered invalid, namely the distance kept by the US in its dealings of with the ICTY and the dynamics which enable NATO’s war crimes to remain untarnished by any judicial procedures

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Introducing Kafka - A Graphic Guide

Introducing Kafka - A Graphic Guide
By David Zane Mairowitz
Illustrated by Robert Crumb

Review by Ramona Wadi

“I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.” Franz Kafka

Introducing Kafka - A Graphic Guide, immerses the reader immediately into a world where alienation provides magnificent insight into the immediate environment and its consequences. Kafka's literature is a realm of darkness in which abasement, grotesque detail, detachment and hibernation merge to create a narrative of fragmented truths and disgust.

From a childhood heavily influenced by his father's maltreatment and bullying, Kafka's writing resonated with self-deprecation. As he once stated, "Writing is a deeper sleep than death. Just as one wouldn't pull a corpse from its grave, I can't be dragged from my desk at night.” Writing became a necessity through which he was able to discern and absorb humiliation, while constructing narratives of submission, power and guilt.

Mairowitz's text shifts brilliantly from biography to overview of Kafka's stories, seamlessly portraying the family and history influences which caused Kafka to retreat and observe, instead of progressing to rebellion. Indeed, Kafka's precise observation, as well as debasing and humiliating descriptions stem from perceiving his characters through the lens of the oppressor.  The Metamorphosis, In The Penal Colony, The Trial and A Hunger Artist pull the victim into the limelight by propelling the aberrant, oppressive characters to the fore. In this way, just as the victim in Kafka's stories seems to crave a withdrawal, the experienced humiliation is prolonged beyond the immediate torture.

Kafka's work was published posthumously by Max Brod, who ignored Kafka's specific instructions that his writings should be burned. His books were banned following World War II, having been promoted by Czech dissidents as realist literature.

Introducing Kafka - A Graphic Guide is an elaborate overview of an author who absorbed his environment through self-imposed detachment is an excellent prologue to anyone interested in delving further into Kafka's bizarre, magnificent literature.