You know it won’t be pleasant when ‘death squads’ is in the headline.

Because they took place within the Russian Federation, the 1994-2009 Russian-Chechen wars (technically 1994-1996 and 1999-2009) haven’t been as extensively analysed, written about, and dramatized on film as the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Even though about as many people died in Chechnya as in Bosnia, there was no ‘Welcome to Grozny.’  (Ok, there were a few pro-war Russian films. If anyone knows of any anti-war or even-handed ones, please correct me in the comments.)

The suffering of civilians and combatants on all sides during the Russian-Chechen wars took place mostly off camera, and seemed somehow much farther away, much more obscure  than the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, which, while badly misunderstood at times, were still framed as wars in Europe, and thus the moral burden of Europe and its allies.

Not so with Chechnya. That was a very Russian mess, best left for historians and scholars of the Caucasus to argue about at university functions and in scholarly journals. It rarely made international headlines until Chechen militants began killing Russian (and other) civilians in much larger numbers using terrorist tactics like suicide bombings.

The gruesome Beslan school siege, which left more than three hundred children dead, was the first event of the conflict that made its way into the 24 hour news cycle as Big International Event. But that was a decade into the conflict, after Grozny had not only been leveled but had already been partially rebuilt. By then, what happened in the North Caucasus was considered part of the post 9/11 ‘Global War on Terror,’ so the complicated context  of the long-running conflict was shoved aside in favour of a more general  backdrop of Islamist terrorism.

During this decade, families of victims of human rights violations during the conflict have waged a quiet and slow battle of their own in the European Court of Human Rights, winning several landmark cases against the Russian Government for everything from torture to extrajudicial killings to enforced disappearances. These cases, combined, have functioned as a kind of truth commission (the only kind Chechens and Russians will likely ever get) by giving victims a forum and by forcing the Russian Government to answer questions about the conduct of its military and pay compensation. So important did the ECtHR become to Chechens seeking justice that the embarrassed Russian Government began obstructing the Court’s badly-needed reform process.

Under the control of former warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya is now at peace. Russia ended its military operations –declaring the war against Chechen separatists won– this year. But Chechnya’s peace is tenuous, maintained by economic development and reconstruction (which may slow significantly as the global recession leaves the Russian state with less funds with which to buy peace) and the authoritarian rule of  a man best known outside of Russia for his fondness for pet tigers and decided lack of fondness for investigative journalists.

Moreover, humanitarian needs have not disappeared in this tiny republic, which saw fully half its population displaced during the conflict. As the IRC reports:

Although there have been many positive gains in reducing violence and instability in recent years, including the revitalization of Grozny, the rebuilding of one of the largest mosques in Europe and an overall improvement in security, there are still many communities with dire humanitarian needs, without access to basic water, sanitation and housing. “As our staff see and experience every day, there is still a very strong need in the area for assistance, development, and investment,” said Thomas Hill, IRC’s Caucasus director.

A former colleague of mine worked in Chechnya for a while. She said that foreign NGOs were watched very closely and not allowed to address systemic problems. To point out glaring gaps in the services provided by the Kadyrov government  was to “politicize” relief, and could easily result in one’s expulsion, she told me.

Still, with major violence over, Chechnya does seem like less of a taboo topic now, and I’ve noticed more and more articles exploring the conflict and its legacy.

The Times of London just published a rather graphic article on Russian death squads during the Russian-Chechen wars that is, to put it bluntly, fucking disgusting –an important but really, really brutal read.

Here’s one account of Russian special forces searching for –and then killing– women thought to be training as suicide bombers.

When the order came to storm the single-storey property, dozens of heavily armed men in masks and camouflage uniforms – unmarked to conceal their identity – had no difficulty in overwhelming the three women inside. Their captives were driven to a military base.

The soldiers were responding to a tip-off that the eldest of the three, who was in her forties, had been indoctrinating women to sacrifice themselves in Chechnya’s ferocious war between Islamic militants and the Russians. The others captured with her were her latest recruits. One was barely 15.

“At first the older one denied everything,” said a senior special forces officer last week. “Then we roughed her up and gave her electric shocks. She provided us with good information. Once we were done with her we shot her in the head.

And just when I thought I couldn’t be shocked at body-disposal methods (uh, especially after hearing many Afghan civil war stories), Russian ex-commandos had to prove me wrong.

Continue reading

A helpful reminder

From the UN rapporteur on torture:

UN expert criticizes US torture decision

VIENNA (AP) — An Austrian newspaper quotes the U.N.’s top torture investigator as saying President Barack Obama’s decision not to prosecute CIA operatives who used questionable interrogation practices violates international law.

Manfred Nowak is quoted in Der Standard as saying the United States has committed itself under the U.N. Convention against Torture to make torture a crime and to prosecute those suspected of engaging in it.

Obama assured CIA operatives on Thursday they would not be prosecuted for their rough interrogation tactics of terror suspects under the former Bush administration.

Nowak also says in the newspaper interview published Saturday that a comprehensive independent investigation is needed, and that it is important to compensate victims.

More from the torture program files

For a while, I held the opinion that the best mechanism for transitional justice in post-Bush America would be an investigatory truth commission with subpoena power that wouldn’t grant immunity, but also wouldn’t necessarily precede criminal trials. I thought that if this was pulled together, it would gain such momentum that prosecutions would cease to be a question of if and become a matter of how soon.

But, right now, I’m of the “screw that” mind.

Let’s start with an independent prosecutor.

The Guardian, on just released Guantanamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed:

Mohamed was found to be suffering from bruising, organ damage, stomach complaints, malnutrition, sores to feet and hands, severe damage to ligaments as well as profound emotional and psychological problems which have been exacerbated by the refusal of Guantánamo’s guards to give him counselling.

Mohamed’s British lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said his client had been beaten “dozens” of times inside the notorious US camp in Cuba with the most recent abuse occurring during recent weeks. He said: “He has a list of physical ailments that cover two sheets of A4 paper. What Binyam has been through should have been left behind in the middle ages.”

Lieutenant colonel Yvonne Bradley, Mohamed’s US military attorney, added: “He has been severely beaten. Sometimes I don’t like to think about it because my country is behind all this.”

Well, lieutenant colonel Bradley, a lot of people in Washington would also rather not think too deeply about the torture program, renditions, and assorted other crimes and human rights violations. But we need to face this.

More discussion of a truth commission

A few points:

1) It’s a very VERY welcome change from a few months ago that we’re now hearing more serious disagreement over what kinds of transitional justice mechanisms we’ll use to reckon with the crimes of the Bush era, rather than whether we should or can use any at all.

2) There is no single model for setting up a truth commission or commencing criminal prosecutions. We have many options.

3) The only option we don’t have –if we want to pay more than lip service to the principles of the rule of law and equal justice– is to do nothing.

4) Let’s leave reconciliation out of it. It’s a non-issue, and weakens the argument in favor of transitional justice in this case. As I wrote a few months back:

There are no parties to be reconciled, just the agents of a soon-to-be-out-of-power criminal regime and their numerous and varied victims. Moreover, the victims are of a dozen or more nationalities and spread out over six continents. Very few of the surviving victims and loved ones of deceased victims will ever have to share the same social or civic space –or the same space, period– with the perpetrators.

I think that the creation of an evidence-seeking Truth Commission that neither automatically precedes criminal trials nor offers any kind of immunity would be the best option for us in the years ahead.

Joe Arpaio: From human rights abuser to reality TV sensation

PHOENIX— In Arizona, seeing Joe Arpaio on TV is nothing new. But the self-described “America’s toughest sheriff” now has a national platform to pursue lawbreakers that stretches beyond the 5 o’clock news.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the state’s most populous county, has a starring role in “Smile … You’re Under Arrest!,” a new reality show debuting Saturday on Fox Reality Channel.

Smile…You’re Under Arrest!

Unaware criminal suspects with outstanding warrants are lured out of hiding in this high-energy prank show. Original, inventive, unique and funny, Smile…You’re Under Arrest! creates elaborate comical stings to bring real runaway fugitives to justice.

Armed with a troupe of improvisational actors, comedy writers and of course, the police, the show masterminds some of the most hysterical and outrageous stings ever caught on tape.

Actual wanted criminals are lured in using various scenarios such as a job as an extra on a movie set with the promise of good pay; or a fake fashion shoot where the subject thinks he is about to become a supermodel. In the end all the participants are revealed as officers of the law, and the criminal is apprehended. It’s a prank show that takes the entire genre to a whole new level – who knew comedy could be this dangerous?

Here’s something the cheerful news blurbs and network promotions won’t tell you: Joe Arpaio has been slapped with over two thousand lawsuits by the relatives of inmates in his prisons.  Why so much litigation? The answer is as sordid as it is simple: Joe Arpaio is a brutal, career human rights abuser.

His brutality has made him a legendary figure to  the “lock ’em up, rough ’em up” and anti-immigrant constituencies, and a notorious one to human rights and humanitarian groups. Joe Arpaio is a someone who believes a law enforcement badge entitles –no, commands— its possessor to do whatever he or she chooses, and that people convicted or even simply accused of crimes forfeit their human rights and become mere subjects of a system.

In one jail, Arpaio forces male inmates to wear pink underwear and pink handcuffs, and use pink towels, as a form of humiliation, playing on inmate’s powerlessness and fears of emasculation. He’s also re-introduced chain gangs, a form of punishment that most American prisons have abandoned as cruel and archaic. Arpaio’s female and juvenile prisoner chain gangs have attracted great media fascination, and he boasts of them often.

“I use it for deterrence to fight crime. I put them right on the street where everyone can see them. If a kid asks his mother, she can tell them this is what happens to people who break the law,” he said.

Journalists paint a very different picture of Apraio’s chain gangs.

[…] Next morning at 6 a.m., 15 women assembled for chain gang duty. They were padlocked together by the ankle, five to each chain, and marched military style out to a van that transported them to their work site — a county cemetery half an hour out of the city in the desert.

The women had to bury the bodies of indigents who had died in the streets or in the hospital without family and without the money to pay for a proper funeral. Father Bill Wack, a young Catholic priest, and Sister Mary Ruth Dittman, were waiting for them. The first body was that of a baby, in a tiny white casket, who did not even have a name. Wack said a prayer for the baby and Dittman recited the 23rd Psalm while some of the women silently wept. Then, they filled in the grave and moved on to the next body. Altogether, the women laid to rest six people, including two babies. Jets from a nearby military base continuously blasted overhead, interrupting the brief prayers.

Thousands of Apraio’s prisoners are forced to live in tents outside, even in the heat of the Arizona summer, when the temperatures inside the tents soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Others are crammed into overcrowded cells. They are made to work seven days a week and are fed only twice a day, on nutritionally-deficient and sometimes spoiled food. Inmates’ meals cost just thirty cents each, which, brags Arpaio, is less than it costs to feed prison dogs.

Arpaio does nothing to hide the narcissistic authoritarianism and cult-of-personality aspects of his cruelty. In fact, he flaunts them for all to see.

They have to pay $10 every time they need to see a nurse. If they want to write to their families, they have to use special postcards with the sheriff’s picture on them. If their loved ones visit, they see them through thick plate glass or over a video link.

[…] “I think about my son, Chaz. He is 3. I miss him immensely, ” said Defonda McInelly, serving eight months for check forgery.  “I don’t have him come and visit me in here. He knows that mommy is in jail and I don’t want him to see mommy for half an hour through a glass window and then be dragged away.”

When a local newspaper dared to investigate what was going on in Maricopa’s jails, Arpaio tried to silence the newspaper. If he’d been born elsewhere (say, Central Asia, or Central Africa), Joe Arpaio would be a warlord-president (think: Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov), or military dictator of some unfortunate country, or the head of a secret police force, or a militia commander terrorizing civilians. Fuck, he’s close enough to that last characterization anyway. In 2006, he created a local law enforcement “posse” in Maricopa county to hunt down and capture undocumented immigrants, work normally done only by federal immigration authorities. The governor of Arizona put a stop to that, calling it dangerous.

That is already flagrantly clear in Arizona’s most populous county, Maricopa, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has built the biggest 287(g) posse in the country — 160 officers — and deployed it in Hispanic neighborhoods, pulling people over for broken taillights and other traffic infractions and checking papers.

Joe Arpaio has blood on his hands. Lots of it. In just one example among several explained in terrible detail here, Arpaio’s guards beat a mentally disabled man to death.

When Charles Agster arrives at Madison Street Jail, he is confused, as is typical of his condition. He tries to wriggle underneath a bench, and although he is still hogtied, three or more officers and a sheriff’s deputy jump on him, punch him, and knee him in the side. One officer grips his face, pressing upward toward his chin. Although he is now unresponsive, the officers drag him, face down, into the Intake area and strap him into a restraint chair. They place a spit-hood over his head, encasing him in darkness. Minutes later, he stops breathing. The original autopsy lists “positional asphyxia due to restraint” as his cause of death. Videotape of the incident shows guards trying to resuscitate Agster, but he’s already brain dead. A 2002 Amnesty International report expresses concern “that the degree of force used against Agster was grossly disproportionate to any threat posed by him.”

In another case, Ambrett Spencer, an inmate in the ninth month of pregnancy, was denied desperately-needed medical care, resulting in the loss of her baby and very nearly her own life as well.

When EMT Jarrid Ortiz arrived, Spencer, who is African-American, had lost so much color it was clear to him that it was an emergency. “If you are turning that color, you’re not getting enough blood to your organs and skin,” Ortiz later told a sheriff’s detective.

By the time the ambulance arrived at the Maricopa County Hospital, Spencer had been in severe pain and without a doctor for almost four hours. Doctors delivered Ambria Renee Spencer, a 9-pound baby girl with a quarter-inch of thick hair on her head.

Ambria was dead. Spencer’s pain had been caused by internal bleeding — a malady known as placental abruption. Babies often survive the condition, if their mothers go immediately to a hospital. The treatment is simple: immediate delivery. Otherwise, the baby dies from blood loss.

Inmates in Arpaio’s jails aren’t usually allowed to see their babies after birth. Despite protests from the jail guard, hospital employees brought baby Ambria to Spencer, so she could see her daughter before the funeral.

Spencer described the moment for attorneys in her deposition.

“I kept praying that she would just open her eyes because she looked like she was alive.”

A partial list of inmates killed by abuse and neglect can be found here. Because of the cruel system he operates, Joe Arpaio is the most sued sheriff in the United States. Both the ACLU and Amnesty International have criticized the conditions in Arpaio’s jails. Courts in Ireland and Iceland have ruled that persons wanted for crimes in Maricopa county, Arizona  cannot be extradited to the United States because Maricopa correctional facilities do not meet minimum humanitarian standards.

And not only is Joe Arpaio still a free man in spite of all this, he’s now getting his own television show.

In my Visual Culture class, I once joked that reality TV ought to be considered a human rights violation in its own right. I’m not joking now. For all the vapidity and petty sadism of so-called reality television, I really didn’t expect someone like Joe Arpaio to to end up on my TV screen. To market an impunity-drunk human rights abuser as an entertainment personality takes real maleficence.

…I’ll return to this again. I’m not done.

Hooray impunity!

This makes me very, very, very, very angry. And not just “I’ll-post-this-on-my-blog-and-write-that-I’m-angry-about-it” angry. No, I’m angry in real life.

Robert Litt, a former top Clinton administration Justice Department prosecutor, said Obama should focus on moving forward with anti-torture policy instead of looking back.

“Both for policy and political reasons, it would not be beneficial to spend a lot of time hauling people up before Congress or before grand juries and going over what went on,” Litt said at a Brookings Institution discussion about Obama’s legal policy. “To as great of an extent we can say, the last eight years are over, now we can move forward -that would be beneficial both to the country and the president, politically.”

Shorter Robert Litt: “Tsk, tsk, you fussy human rights lawyers. Enough of this ‘accountability’ nonsense. Don’t you know that the rules are different for the powerful? Just let us move on and forget all this, err, unpleasantness.”


And now the pressure builds

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are the preeminent human rights organizations in the world. As go HRW and Amnesty, so goes the rest of the human rights movement.

So, I was very happy to see that Amnesty has followed HRW in calling for some kind of accountability for perpetrators of human rights abuses during the Bush years.

Amnesty is calling for; criminal investigations into rendition and secret detention programs, a rejection of immunity for perpetrators of torture and other crimes, full disclosure of the names, fates, and whereabouts of disappeared persons, redress for victims, and,  most importantly because the rest depend on it,  the creation of an independent commission –a truth commission, but Amnesty doesn’t use that term.

HRW does, however:

Ensure the establishment of a nonpartisan investigatory commission (“truth commission”), equipped with subpoena powers and adequate funding to investigate and publicly report on post-9/11 counterterrorism-related abuses, recommend how those responsible should be held accountable, and specify steps to ensure that such abuses are never repeated.

I hope both organizations set aside time, staff, and money to see that this is a major priority. It’s necessary for so, so many reasons, and I can’t think of a more opportune time to impanel a truth commission than this coming spring, when the Obama Administration will be new and flush with political capital.

Questions of transitional justice in America

Today, in a post about elite responsibility (note: political responsibility is NOT the same as criminal guilt) for Bush Administration crimes, Glenn Greenwald wrote:

As the Bush administration comes to a close, one overarching question is this: how were the transgressions and abuses of the last eight years allowed to be unleashed with so little backlash and resistance? Just consider — with no hyperbole — what our Government, our country, has done. We systematically tortured people in our custody using techniques approved at the highest levels, many of whom died as a result. We created secret prisons — “black site” gulags — beyond the reach of international monitoring groups. We abducted and imprisoned even U.S. citizens and legal residents without any trial, holding them incommunicado and without even the right to access lawyers for years, while we tortured them to the point of insanity. We disappeared innocent people off the streets, sent them to countries where we knew they’d be tortured, and then closed off our courts to them once it was clear they had done nothing wrong. We adopted the very policies and techniques long considered to be the very definition of “war crimes”.

A while back, somewhere else, I wrote about the need for a truth commission (but not a truth and reconciliation commission) to address the human rights abuses –the very serious crimes— perpetrated during the years of the Bush Administration. I’ve altered the little piece it a bit and decided to post it here, because this is a subject that has been weighing on my mind in the last few days:

I agree with Nick Kristof that we need a Truth Commission of some kind.

Reconciliation is a non-issue. There are no parties to be reconciled, just the agents of a soon-to-be-out-of-power criminal regime and their numerous and varied victims. Moreover, the victims are of a dozen or more nationalities and spread out over six continents. Very few of the surviving victims and loved ones of deceased victims will ever have to share the same social or civic space –or the same space, period– with the perpetrators.

I think that the creation of an evidence-seeking Truth Commission that neither automatically precedes criminal trials nor offers any kind of immunity would be the best option for us in the years ahead.

This is my stance for a few reasons: Continue reading

“What does a country do when compelling evidence shows its leaders have authorised international crimes?”

This is the question Phillipe Sands asks in his latest Op-Ed piece in the Guardian.

Sands argues that the next administration will have to deal with the legacy of human rights abuses left by the Bush Administration, or risk leaving torture and other international crimes open as options for future administrations, poisoning American politics for years to come. Furthermore, Sands argues that if the US doesn’t investigate and prosecute those responsible for crimes like torture, other countries will. The Pinochet treatment will await Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez, and their co-conspirators.

Sands sees some progress stateside:

Over recent months, Congress has been looking into the role of senior officials involved in the development of interrogation rules. These have attracted relatively scant attention; little by little, however, senators and congressmen have uncovered the outlines of a potentially far-reaching criminal conspiracy.

The first hearings were convened before the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives, at the instance of its chairman, Congressman John Conyers, apparently off the back of my book Torture Team. Parallel hearings have been held before the Senate armed services committee.

The evidence that has emerged is potentially devastating. It confirms, for instance, that the search for new interrogation techniques for use at Guantánamo began not with the local military but in the offices of Donald Rumsfeld and his chief lawyer, Jim Haynes.

But he’s not hopeful that anyone will be prosecuted in the end of the day. His piece in the Guardian, as well as his Vanity Fair articles and his book, The Torture Team, all reiterate Sands’ argument that, when it comes down to it, Bush Administration will be tried in European courts, in countries with universal jurisdiction laws, if they are ever tried at all.

The American commenters at Comment is Free did not like this conclusion.

Quiet a few brought up the ICC, apparently after not reading Sands very carefully or not understanding that the ICC has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this, but most simply argued against “foreign interference.” The comments were, by and large, a good illustration of the profoundly different and presently irreconcilable American and European views on international justice. Here’s a sampling of the (mostly negative) responses to Sands.

“It is interesting to see the rebirth of European colonialism in a new Human Rights-friendly guise so obvious on CiF. But somehow I’d start with someone smaller. Stepping in to get America’s house is order is a little bit beyond the Europeans and their pet ICC.”

“No American is accountable to you. Ever. You Europeans may buy into the whole collective responsibility thing. We Americans do not. We never have, and we never will. If we did, we would have bought into the ICC, rather than got a nearly global exemption from it. The fact of the matter is, the Constitution is the supreme law for all Americans. Its people are accountable to its tenants. Everything else… every Geneva convention, UN resolution or international treaty… they’re just nice pieces of paper and sentiments. They do not apply to me, or any other American. And I will not be held accountable by anyone except my peers, my brothers, my countrymen. So good luck picking that fight. You want to come after American citizens over the War on Terror? You’re welcome to try. You will find nothing so quickly rallies and unifies Americans than foreigners intruding where they don’t belong. To put it bluntly, keep that crap on your side of the pond. We want nothing to do with it, and we will not be bounded by it.”

“Just to add one last thing, good foreign friends: don’t get in our way while we deal with this. This is our affair; trust it will be dealt with in a satisfactory manner, and don’t bug us. There are many emotions that any American feels when others meddle in affairs that are not theirs to meddle in before we have been proven incapable of dealing with our own business. We are not Germany, we are not defeated, if you want to hold a court to judge us, please defeat us first, and then get the court. Look, dear friends, but don’t touch. If foreigners involve themselves in this matter, then this matter will never be successfully resolved, because America takes care of American business, not the business of foreigners, even that of our dear foreign friends.”

They’ll try. They can’t help themselves. For centuries they’ve speculated and been perplexed why Americans are nothing like them, and moreover want to be nothing like them. They’ve never understood why we don’t aspire to be like them, and why their ideas and ours are often at odds. That we actively try to insulate ourselves from much of what they aspire for the world only frustrates them. They’ve never understood it, and they never will. So they’ll try. They’ll step over that red line, and it will blow up in their face.

And on and on they go, in this fashion, for dozens more comments.

I suspect Sands’ predictions will come true. I expect at least one or two former Bush Administration officials to go to Oktoberfest, or decide they’ve always wanted to see the Louvre, or attend a real Spanish bullfight, and end up in handcuffs shortly after leaving the airport, thanks to some principled prosecutor.