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Binyam Mohamed and the barbarism of the US Empire

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Guantanamo Bay prisoner, Binyam Mohamed, has finally been released after seven years held without trial by the US authorities. The Pakistani authorities first arrested him in 2002 when he attempted to board a Karachi flight in order to return to Britain. He had travelled to Pakistan from Afghanistan to escape the fallout from the 11 September attacks and upon arrest he entered the American “ghost prison system” before being moved to Guantanamo Bay in September 2004. Denied anything resembling a trial – fair or otherwise – and submitted to the most appalling acts of torture during his interrogation, his experience testifies to the moral bankruptcy of the American Empire.

“Extraordinary rendition”
The “ghost prison system” is the network of secret prisons run by the CIA in American client states across the world. Binyam was taken to prisons in Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan as part of its so-called “extraordinary rendition” policy. This term is a repulsive euphemism used by the US administration for the abduction and illegal imprisonment of foreign nationals without any of the rights that they would be granted if they were arrested and detained in the US. While much has – quite rightly – been made of the British government’s attempt to introduce 42-day detention without charge, Binyam suffered a fate that was much worse: detained for three years without any charges being brought against him, then for a further four years without a trial before the charges were dropped.

And what evidence did the US authorities have against Binyam? None that is capable of standing up to serious scrutiny. They claimed that he was trained in Kabul under the Taliban to build “dirty bombs” and planned to carry out terrorist attacks against American civilians. In 2005, this was the basis for the bringing of the conspiracy charge against him. But the “evidence” for this was either circumstantial – i.e. he was in Afghanistan while it was ruled by the Taliban – or extracted during interrogations when Binyam was submitted to acts of torture.

In the ghost prison in Morocco, Binyam has told of how interrogators used razor blades and scalpels to repeatedly cut his penis and chest. At Guantanamo Bay he has exposed a regime that carries out savage beatings of inmates, where guards taunted detainees by desecrating the Qur’an, and where female interrogators carried out acts of sexual humiliation against the prisoners. In Kabul at the “Dark Prison”, a regime that has been exposed by Human Rights Watch, detainees are permanently chained to the wall, kept in darkness, deprived of food and water for weeks at a time, and forced to listen to western music played at high decibel levels. When Binyam was held in the “Dark Prison”, he says he was injected with heroin against his will so that his drug addiction could be used against him in interrogation.

In defence of basic freedoms and rights
Defenders of the US policy on the treatment of “enemy combatants” (the term they used for captives to get around the Geneva Convention commitments to prisoners of war) have pointed to the “evidence” against Binyam: they attack as a “flimsy excuse” his claim to have gone to Afghanistan to kick a drugs habit because it is the “heroine capital of the world”, and pointed to the admissions of guilt he has made during his incarceration. It is quite something when going to a country becomes a crime in and of itself, and semi-confessions (he admitted to going to a training camp but not to planning to carry out terrorist attacks on western targets) extracted in conditions analogous to a medieval torture chamber can be used legitimately as evidence.

No doubt part of the reason Binyam’s case has attracted popular outcry and discontent against the US is not only the harrowing stories of the conditions in their “ghost prisons” but also that it is plain there is no serious or credible evidence for any of the charges. The danger in this is that it could become “fair enough” to deny “real terrorists” their most basic democratic rights, while the US is asked to exercise greater care over who it decides to abduct and torture. We need to make clear the whole system from Guantanamo to the Kabul “Dark Prison” is reactionary to the core.

Binyam had no access to independent legal representation, was charged under Bush’s military commissions with none of the protection of a normal court of law and subject to torture. The right to a fair trial, the treatment of the accused as innocent until proven guilty, and checks against unlawful imprisonment are all basic democratic rights and have been ripped to pieces by the war on terror.

The barbarism of the US Empire
The winning of democratic rights and freedoms was one of the great accomplishments of the bourgeois revolution in the West. That so many have now been reversed over the last decade exposes the reactionary, i.e. backward, character the war on terror. But the capitalists were never consistent democrats. It took workers’ and social movements, like the Chartists and Suffragettes in Britain and the civil rights movement in the US, which struggled hard to win democratic rights for all.

The undermining of democratic rights has always been a feature of great colonial empires, from the British in India to the French in Algeria. Today’s US empire, with its mobilisation of huge resources and the most advanced technology to create a vast global military apparatus with a web of secret torture chambers, sits well with this colonial tradition. It also testifies to the tendency to social decay and barbarism of the capitalist system in the age of imperialism.

Many now hope that the Obama regime will change all this. And it is certainly to be welcomed that Obama is taking steps to shut down Guantanamo Bay. But he has not promised to shut down the global ghost prison network or ensure that the CIA will cease to use torture. On the contrary, he plans a US$60m expansion of Bagram Airbase Detention Centre in Afghanistan, as part of his “Afghan surge”, which will allow it to hold up to five times as many prisoners.

We need to fight this all the way but we also should also have no illusions in our own government either. Not only were British intelligence services complicit with Binyam’s torture, not only did the foreign secretary David Milliband refuse to release the details on ‘national security grounds’, but similar attacks on democratic rights and freedoms have been carried through in every one of the Labour government’s (nearly annual) pieces of anti-terrorist legislation.

As the capitalist crisis deepens and workers are asked to pay for the crisis, the fight for democratic rights must be a cornerstone our resistance – not least because the capitalists will mobilise vicious anti-democratic measures rather than see their system dumped in the dustbin of history.