Monday, April 22, 2013

Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel

This review was first published in Middle East Monitor here.

By amalgamating the Palestinian historic struggle with individual memory, Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel (Pluto Press, 2013), portrays the brutality of Israel’s colonial occupation in relation to the mass incarceration of Palestinians. Departing from statistical information and the historical perspective, the book’s initial chapters weave a narrative of ideology, education and resistance within incarceration, creating a contrast between Palestinian tenacity towards achieving self-determination and Israel’s policy of torture and apartheid practices.

Incarceration is so widely practiced and incorporated within Israel’s oppressive regime that it is difficult to encounter a family which has not experienced the system’s ramifications. Mass imprisonment of Palestinians has been a constant feature of the occupation, with the incidence increasing in the post-Oslo period, particularly since the second Intifada when security became an integral component of Israel’s political rhetoric against Palestinian resistance.

The book describes Palestinian struggle in relation to world history and trends, noting how the shift from guerrilla warfare in the 1960s and 1970s gave way to affiliation with political factions such as Fatah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Communist Party. Thus, a shift in the characterisation of political prisoners ensued – with the knowledge that the Palestinian struggle against the occupation was entrenched within education and ideology, Israel sought to manipulate the development of the prisoners movement by denying them ‘political prisoner status’ and referring to the resistance as ‘terrorists’ – a preliminary shift which would facilitate the incorporation of torture with impunity for officials indulging in human rights violations.

For the prisoners, education was central to resistance, with debate amongst various factions giving rise to a transformation of consciousness due to a focus upon the process of enlightenment rather than a stereotyped ‘educational attainment’. Prisoners became mobilised against the prison order, developing the unification of the struggle on two grounds while creating an analogy – the struggle against the occupation while incarcerated and the struggle against the occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.

The historic narrative focuses on the Palestinian struggle, escalated by the need for freedom and a national demand for change. Imprisonment is perceived as an entirety – the physical construction of prisons and the geopolitical characteristics of the occupation have stifled freedom and self-determination. The extent of control and exclusion unleashed by Israel has served to transform Palestinian identity from the local to the national. Within ‘the colonial prison’, this transformation can be observed in the impossibility to control and dominate every aspect of the resistance. “In our case of the colonial prison, indomitability stems from the nature of the system of domination itself.” The excesses, resulting in horrendous torture, can be read as a vengeful retaliation against Palestinians who are being castigated for the occupation’s inability to sustain the occupation through other measures. Hence, it is not viable to separate torture practice from the state of Israel – despite Israel’s description of torture as ‘moderate physical pressure’ in order to combat ‘hostile terrorist activity’ which is tantamount to obscene denial; the depicted reality is one where the state and torture are interdependent.

Through the various narratives and academic insights provided in the book, Israel’s prison system is meticulously dissected to reveal systematic physical and psychological abuse. The euphemism of ‘moderate physical pressure’ is described by torture survivors as taking the form of rape, exposure to extreme temperatures, beatings, sexual-psychological torture, shabeh, pain inflicted on sensitive areas of the body, frenzied shaking of the prisoner’s body and placing a foul smelling bag over a prisoner’s head for several hours. Despite a 1999 ruling by the Israeli High Court of Justice declaring a prohibition on ‘brutal or inhuman means in the course of an investigation’, the court also stipulated that interrogators indulging in torture ‘might not be held criminally liable as they may rely on the ‘necessity defence’. Impunity is rampant within the legal framework as Shin Bet is not required to produce any evidence of alleged crimes, although the judge is expected to adhere to the intelligence agency’s version of events. Within the legal framework, torture is therefore intertwined within an imaginary context – the experience of torture is never investigated whilst the practice is dismissed as a detail which plays not part in compromising any resulting confession.

The practice of administrative detention can also be classified as a form of torture. The convenience allows Israel to operate within the boundaries of its own necessities, while violating a detainee’s right to defence. Speculation or alleged conspiracy to commit a crime takes precedence over the facts, and the renewal of detention periods without bringing charges against the detainee has been used as a bargaining tool in Israel’s favour – enticing Palestinians to become collaborators, thus splitting the unity of the resistance through possible betrayal. As long as Israeli discourse remains entrenched within ‘security’, the challenge to administrative detention is slight, with non-violent resistance usually being the preferred method of achieving recognition of human rights violations. It is, however, a fact that torture within the contemporary has been side-lined. An outrage only occurs if there is instant access to imagery – long term torture fails to elicit a response.

The classification of security prisoners is applied broadly and without distinction – the ‘terrorist’ label is unlikely to change unless there is a change in the profiling carried out by Israel. War terminology is essential to justify force against Palestinians as legitimate self-defence, therefore Palestinian political prisoners are also not allowed the ‘prisoner of war status’, despite UN Resolution 3103 (1973) concerning the basic principles of the legal status of combatants struggling against colonial and alien domination and racist regimes. The resolution states that, ‘The struggle of peoples under colonial and alien domination and racist regimes for the implementation of their right to self-determination and independence is legitimate and in full accordance with the principles of international law.’

A notable aspect of this book is the renewed Palestinian resistance in the wake of constant human rights violations committed by Israel. The international community of spectators has not ceased to applaud Israel for its commitment to ‘eliminating security threats’ while intentionally disregarding their obligations under international law. The abuse against Palestinian prisoners is never newsworthy or of ‘concern’ unless it serves the interests of governing bodies in adopting aspects of the narration to suit their vested interests. Within the imposed isolation brought by the occupier’s colonial discourse and the imperial motives of its allies, Palestinian political prisoners have created a unique identity in which liberation is embodied within each individual deprived of personal freedom.

Asociación Ilícita: los archivos secretos de la dictadura

This book review was first published in Chileno here.

Asociación Ilícita: los archivos secretos de la dictadura
Carlos Dorat & Mauricio Weibel
Ceibo Ediciones, 2012

Through now revealed secret government documents, Asociación Ilícita: los archivos secretos de la dictadura details the extent of the far-reaching reign of terror imposed by Augosto Pinochet's dictatorship. Ramona Wadi reviews.


Re-enacting Chile’s dictatorship history is an arduous task, undoubtedly hindered by Augusto Pinochet’s insistence upon oblivion and legally sanctioned by the enacted impunity laws. Seeking to annihilate memory by imposing a reign of persecution, torture, disappearances and exile, the struggle to delegitimize the leftist struggle degenerated into Pinochet’s obsession to legitimise his dictatorship. Evidence compiled by authors Carlos Dorat and Mauricio Weibel reveals a sinister collaboration extending beyond the secret network Dirección de Intelligencia Nacional (DINA) and later Central Nacional de Información (CNI), involving ministries, embassies, diplomats, the FBI, the Vatican and right wing Latin American governments.

Asociación Ilícita: los archivos secretos de la dictadura (Ceibo Ediciones, 2012) examines documents which for some reason, failed to be destroyed by the CNI in 1988 prior to the transition period. The documents, detailing extensive correspondence on behalf of Pinochet, are mainly attributed to Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, Odlainer Mena, Humberto Gordon and Hugo Salas, proving the extent of collaboration between various governmental and international bodies, as well as incursions to divert civilian attempts to shed light upon Chile’s reality. From El Plan Condor to inscribed orders from Pinochet requesting the detention of socialist opponents, terror and diplomatic strategy comprise the analysis of what the authors term ‘a catalogue of horror and intolerance’.

September 11, 1973 unleashed the neoliberal experiment upon Chile, supported by the US which was, in Kissinger’s words, unwilling ‘to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide from themselves’. Following an initial purging of socialism in Chile, the published documents in this book reveal how political strategy, in collaboration with the Vatican, was aiming to install Pinochet as an icon of freedom and anti-communist struggle. Apart from the well known targeting of Communist Party and Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR) militants, the military advocated a complete dismantling of social movements, student organisations and embarked upon restricting the Church’s activities. With regard to the latter, correspondence with the Vatican illustrates the alignment of the church oligarchy with Pinochet’s dictatorship, as opposed to priests working in the country who, contrary to what had occurred in other countries, aligned themselves with the left. While the Vatican urged priests to adhere solely to ceremonial roles, Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez had abandoned the designated conservative role in favour of exposing dictatorship atrocities through the Vicaria de la Solidaridad. Part of the political strategy against human rights groups was to seek invalidation of exposed atrocities by citing Marxist infiltration.

A brief overview of DINA establishes an ideological framework attributed to Jaime Guzman, who fostered a counterinsurgency programme based upon combating Marxism and seeking the annihilation of social movements from the political scene. As DINA’s power intensified, counterinsurgency became central to the stability of the dictatorship, lending the state a channel through which to intensify diplomatic efforts with other right wing governments and repressive bodies, in order to present a formidable opposition to organisations expressing their outrage at the widespread violence. Documents relating to Operaciones Epsilon reveal that former head of DINA, Manual Contreras, was authorised to give orders to various ministries. An 11 page document relating to the assembly of ‘Comision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos’ sought to ‘neutralise worldwide accusations of human rights violations in Chile’, instead proposing an emphasis of human rights disputes in Vietnam and the Soviet Union, among other countries. The neutralisation of any verbal opposition against the dictatorship was to be met with an open and clandestine psychological campaign, in order to preserve Chile’s ‘image’ from any possible ‘discrediting and spreading of false information’.

The political threat was personified in particular by the clandestine Communist Party and MIR, who waged armed resistance against the dictatorship and suffered great losses due to persecution and disappearances of many militants, including the notorious Operacion Colombo. The book states that, according to research carried out by renowned author Manuel Salazar, Contreras had been compiling information about political leaders of leftist organisations since Salvador Allende’s presidency. Related documents published in this book and stamped as confidential outline the activities of several left wing leaders, including Victor Diaz and Luis Recabarren.

‘The problem of human rights’ constituted a major problem for the dictatorship, as it relentlessly sought to portray any internal or external criticism as tarnishing the image of Chile. Despite the extermination of socialist leaders, subsequent regrouping of MIR, Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitario (MAPU) and other left wing groups gave rise to an initiation of protests against the dictatorship, with people demanding the return of their exiled relatives. Hundreds were massacred by the CNI, as the military was deployed to the streets in an effort to stifle dissent. As the dictatorship faced the most difficult years of its era, Guzman advocated an ideology shifting towards permanent military rule.

The authors describe the oppression as methodical – indeed the documents reveal statistical data of ‘terrorist activity’ and ‘manipulation of conduct’. The constant preoccupation and compilation of data enabled the dictatorship to enact legislation according to the circumstances, in order to ensure a continuation of impunity. A trend of state terrorism is easily gleaned from the documents produced in the book, as well as the analysis provided by the authors. The ‘Caravan of Death’, the ‘Plan Condor’, which was carried out in collaboration with other Latin American countries, ‘Operacion Colombo’ – also known as the Case of the 119, ‘Operacion Epsilon’ and the collaboration with the US regarding ‘the distortion of Chile’s truth in favour of Marxism’ gave rise to the tracking of dissidents' and exiles' activity abroad, in order to prevent the possibility of the formation of a government in exile. Embassies were also authorised to keep copies of any published material relevant to Chile, in particular reports concerning human rights violations. The exercise was described as ‘censorship of negative information’. However, the dictatorship’s targeting of any person suspected of harbouring leftist sentiment, even through association not related to political activity and irrespective of nationality, led to disclosure of torture practices in international media. The case of Sheila Cassidy – a British doctor suspected of having offered medical assistance to Pinochet’s opponents led to international outrage, which in turn the dictatorship tried to stifle by refusing to issue working permits for journalists travelling to Chile in order to report on human rights. State organisations were also forbidden to comment about Chile without prior permission granted through formal official channels. At least 761 journalists were prohibited from reporting about human rights violations in Chile and their details were included in the dictatorship’s archives.

Hostility against the media was enhanced by the fact that culture – an integral part of Allende’s campaign and perhaps synonymous with the nueva canción movement, was not to be stifled. Inti Illimani and Illapu, together with other singers in exile such as Angel Parra, Isabel Parra and Patricio Manns maintained their political stance and disseminated their convictions through music. The literature of Ariel Dorfman and Antonio Skarmeta was banned in Chile, as was the political thought of Eduardo Galeano and Karl Marx.

Perhaps the significance of this book lies in the fact that it is yet another sliver in Chilean memory elucidating the callous ideology behind the committed atrocities. By analysing this archive of documents, Dorat and Weibel have succeeded in reassembling the fragments of the dictatorship, most importantly eliminating the gap between the experienced violations and the dictatorship laws which ravaged the lives of thousands of Chileans.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Who Killed Che? How the CIA got away with murder

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“Under the laws that govern warfare, including guerrilla war, the killing of a prisoner is murder and constitutes a war crime. It is not just the actual shooter who is guilty of a war crime. Those higher up that ordered, acquiesced or failed to prevent the murder are guilty of a war crime as well. There is no statute of limitation for this crime.” (Ratner and Smith, 2011)

In ‘Who Killed Che? How the CIA got away with Murder?’(OR Books, 2011) Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith discuss historical narratives from various sources while providing the contrast between the narratives of various authors against a selection of published declassified documents from the White House, the CIA, as well as the US State and Defense Departments. Che’s murder is replete with conflicting testimonies embroiled in a major inconsistency – the evidence of US guilt against dissemination of the opposite information. However, a careful reading and examination of the documents portray the CIA’s involvement and sheds light on the erroneous information supplied by agent Felix Rodriguez, demonstrating the use of plausible deniability.

Former secretary of state George Marshall declared that the CIA’s status as a paramilitary organization granted the agency unlimited power and impunity to violate international law, authorised by the National Security Act of 1947. International law violations required a cover up for the CIA, thus an official policy of lying about paramilitary operations in a manner which shielded the White House was practiced. According to Ratner and Smith, through the practice of plausible deniability, the CIA was allowed the freedom to interpret and act upon the president’s words without any consultation, thus shielding government officials from responsibility. Referring to assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, former head of the CIA Richard Helms stated that he “never informed either the president or his newly appointed CIA director John Mc Cone of the assassination plots ... nobody wants to embarrass a President of the United States by discussing the assassination of foreign leaders in his presence.”

The book discusses the various accounts of Che’s death in popular biographical accounts. Ratner and Smith observe that the versions either deny or vaguely imply CIA involvement. In his book ‘Shadow Warrior: The CIA Hero of a Hundred Unknown Battles’, Rodriguez insists that despite the CIA wanting Che alive, he did nothing to oppose the execution order allegedly given from generals in La Paz. Echoing Rodriguez, Richard Harris completely exonerates the CIA from any responsibility in his book ‘Death of a Revolutionary’. Rodriguez’s version is unquestioned and the author states that US involvement in Che’s death was minimal.

Both Jorge Castaneda and Jon Lee Anderson discuss Rodriguez’s account of Che’s murder in their respective biographies. However Castaneda implies an agreement between the US and Bolivia to have Che executed if captured, while Anderson discusses Colonel Andre Selich’s version, stating that Rodriguez never received direct orders to have Che murdered. Paco Ignacio Taibo’s version omits any reference to Rodriguez in the orders leading to Che’s death, suggesting instead that President Barrientos ordered Che’s assassination. Fox Butterfield Ryan’s biography states that the CIA “knew for thirty-six hours before Che’s execution that he was captured,” however he describes the CIA as having “done nothing”.

Close scrutiny of the declassified documents, which make up the major part of this book, reveal that the US was heavily involved in documenting Che’s movements, speeches and subsequent plans to spread revolutionary struggle. Che was being tracked as early as 1954 upon his arrival in Guatemala – a fact echoed in the book’s preface by Rolando Alarcon, who asserts “Ernesto Guevara was an object of interest for the American secret services before he entered our history, long before he became Che.”

A CIA cable in 1958 states that while Fidel is considered the dominating revolutionary influence, Che is capable of ensuring the continuity of the Bolivarian Revolution. Other CIA cables describe Che as an idealist wanting to fight against the political situation in Latin America. A CIA biographical fact sheet about Che states that he is highly unlikely to remain in Cuba if the revolution triumphs. Following the Cuban revolutionary triumph, Che’s views on US foreign policy were documented in another CIA cable, quoting him as saying, “The Castro government has letters and documentary proof showing improper collaboration between the former US Ambassador and the BATISTA regime.” The cable also takes into account Che’s opinion that, “The United States has achieved social justice and liberty for its own people, but it objects when small Latin American countries struggle for the same things for themselves.”

The cables, memos and documents concerning Che’s activities in Bolivia are explicit with regard to US intentions to eliminate him. CIA documents (1966) reported Che’s intention to lead an armed struggle in the Andes, extending through Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. Documents from the White House and the Department of State indicate clearly that President Barrientos asked for US aid in order to fight the guerrilla insurgency. Upon assessing Bolivian counterinsurgency capabilities, the US decided to aid Barrientos by fulfilling his request for “a hunter-killer team” which would effectively eliminate the guerrilla movement. The CIA agent responsible for training the Bolivian military was Felix Rodriguez, who arrived in Bolivia on August 2, 1967.

The conflicting documents regarding Che’s capture and death serve to facilitate US denial of any involvement in the actual murder. Reports sent to Washington on October 9, 1967 claim that Che had been captured and “reliably reported still alive”, contradicting a memorandum sent by counterinsurgency head Walter Rostow to President Johnson stating that Che was dead and the responsible squad had been trained by the US. Yet another document sent on October 10 – a day after Che’s murder, refutes the notion that Che was ‘among the casualties’. This was a major incongruence, considering that Rodriguez was in La Higuera on the day of Che’s death.

According to the authors, a lack of cohesive structure in the documents indicate the possibility that higher officials may have been intentionally misled through memorandums in order to achieve plausible deniability for US government officials. CIA documents have sought to portray Che’s murder as a Bolivian government action, notwithstanding the paramilitary training provided by the US. However, Ratner and Smith expound upon the inconsistencies with regard to Rodriguez’s testimony, which led to CIA exoneration from the war crime. Primarily, he stated that orders from the US were to keep Che alive if captured. While in his first report Rodriguez claimed that the secret code 700 indicated the order to kill Che, in a debriefing ten years later he declared that the order to dispose of Che was given directly to him, under the code 600. In his first testimony the code 600 indicated an order to keep Che alive. During the debriefing Rodriguez also stated that he was unable to spare Che’s life and that the order came directly from Bolivian generals. Apart from confusing the secret codes, which, according to the authors, indicate the possibility that he was not the person who received the order to kill Che, Rodriguez had previously stated that, as CIA agents, they had never accepted any orders from the Bolivian Army.

On October 11, a document by Rostow sent to President Johnson affirms Che’s death, however the killing is deemed ‘stupid’, implying that Washington was not involved in the assassination. The order to execute Che, according to the document, came from the Chief of Bolivian Armed Forces. Ratner and Smith argue that this is improbable, given that other documents clearly indicate US responsibility for the training of ‘killer groups’, apart from having a CIA agent in La Higuera. Che’s death is also regarded as strategic for US interests in Latin America. Additionally, Rostow claims that the murder reinforces the trend of eliminating ‘romantic revolutionaries’, discourages guerrillas in Latin America to pursue armed struggle and portrays the efficiency of US ‘preventive medicine’ with regard to counterinsurgency.

The book facilitates a rather intimidating task of sifting through evidence, allowing the reader to both perceive divergences in the various narrations in order to discern the reality behind Che’s murder. While the CIA’s analysis of Che’s Bolivian diary concludes that “the Guevara legend will only be dulled by this account of the pathetic struggle in Bolivia”, it is clear that such a statement is derived from relief that the intention to spread the revolution was unsuccessful. Ratner and Smith do not commit the error of isolating Che from the Cuban revolution. Che had stated that the best defence of the revolution was its extension within the continent; however the US was equally as adamant that a successful struggle within Latin America would lessen its prospects of imperialism and regional interests. It remains to be seen how much more would have been revealed had the documents not been subjected to official censorship, omitting valuable information which would weaken the coveted strategy of plausible deniability.