Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Torture’ Category

A Black Army vet spent 16 months in solitary. Then a jury heard the evidence against him.

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“Land of the free.”

“Liberty and justice for all.”

Look around. Read Sydney Trent’s article (gift link, no paywall) in the Washington Post. It begins:

The cell was smaller than a parking space, bound by three dirty beige concrete walls and a steel door with a narrow slot to push in meals and shackle hands.

There was a narrow cot, a toilet, a sink. The filmy glass on the barred window allowed little sun; the always-on fluorescent ceiling light allowed no darkness. Each day brought the clanging of chains, the shuffling and shouting of guards and inmates, the threat of violence or the reality of it. Each day poured itself into the next.

For 16 months and all but a random hour every other day, Andrew Johnson languished in solitary confinement in a California jail. The first day — Nov. 12, 2014 — was hardly different from the 479th day.

“When they put you in solitary confinement, you’re no longer thinking clearly,” Johnson, 33, says now. “You’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I’m trapped.’ ”

Johnson, an Army veteran who had undergone Special Forces training, knew how to endure hardship. He’d carried 120 pounds in a rucksack for days; he’d overcome a lifelong fear of heights to parachute from planes; he’d fought his way back from a coma after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning. He had a military diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury to show for it.

But Johnson had never been isolated from the world like this before. He had grown up in a comfortable D.C. suburb, the adored only son in a deeply religious Black family. He had never been incarcerated before.

Then a nighttime encounter with two strangers in San Jose led to his arrest for attempted murder. Johnson insisted he was defending himself and had done nothing wrong. But at 26, he was sent to solitary immediately after he was booked into the jail to await trial.

No one ever explained to Johnson; his parents, William and Angela Johnson; or Johnson’s criminal defense attorney why he was put in isolation, they said. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail and was responsible for the decision, did not respond to several requests for comment. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 June 2022 at 8:39 pm

Bucha Is Just The Beginning

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Dave Troy has an article in Medium that is worth reading. It begins:

I’ve been busy with several intense projects the last couple of weeks so have been a bit quieter here than normal. I am watching the situation closely though for ways to add value to the conversation. The war in Ukraine is grinding forward, and we are seeing increasing evidence of widespread war crimes against civilians. The massacre in Bucha in particular has struck a global nerve, and people seem both ready to do whetever is necessary to end this scourge, and also somewhat resigned to the banality of violence. We should all be considering the emotional impacts of consuming imagery of violence and death and give ourselves what’s needed to process it.

My opinion is that this war is in its opening phases and that it will continue until Putin’s capabilities are fully exhausted. That could take a while, and may involve escalations that we can’t anticipate. Towards that end, I want to share a few projects that speak to the current situation.

New Podcast Episode with Wesley Clark, Jr.

This week I dropped Episode 12 of my podcast series “Dave Troy Presents: Oil, Gold, Crypto, and Fascism” featuring US Army veteran and climate activist Wesley Clark, Jr. Wes’s experiences run the gamut of everything we’re facing right now, from the end of oil, to PSYOPs and influence, to global war. If Wes’s name sounds familiar, it’s because his dad, General Wesley Clark, was former Supreme Commander Europe of NATO. So Wes knows a few things about the war situation, as well. . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

5 April 2022 at 6:32 pm

The British Empire Was Much Worse Than You Realize

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The British Empire has a dark history, which Sunil Khilnani discusses in a New Yorker review of Caroline Elkins’s new book Legacy of Violence:

At the height of the British Empire, just after the First World War, an island smaller than Kansas controlled roughly a quarter of the world’s population and landmass. To the architects of this colossus, the largest empire in history, each conquest was a moral achievement. Imperial tutelage, often imparted through the barrel of an Enfield, was delivering benighted peoples from the errors of their ways—child marriage, widow immolation, headhunting. Among the edifiers was a Devonshire-born rector’s son named Henry Hugh Tudor. Hughie, as he was known to Winston Churchill and his other chums, pops up so reliably in colonial outposts with outsized body counts that his story can seem a “Where’s Waldo?” of empire.

He’s Churchill’s garrison-mate in Bangalore in 1895—a time of “messes and barbarism,” the future Prime Minister complained in a note to his mum. As the century turns, Tudor is battling Boers on the veldt; then it’s back to India, and on to occupied Egypt. Following a decorated stint as a smoke-screen artist in the trenches of the First World War, he’s in command of a gendarmerie, nicknamed Tudor’s Toughs, that opens fire in a Dublin stadium in 1920—an assault during a search for I.R.A. assassins which leaves dozens of civilians dead or wounded. Prime Minister David Lloyd George delights in rumors that Tudor’s Toughs were killing two Sinn Féinners for every murdered loyalist. Later, even the military’s chief of staff marvelled at how nonchalantly the men spoke of those killings, tallying them up as though they were runs in a cricket match; Tudor and his “scallywags” were out of control. It didn’t matter: Churchill, soon to be Secretary of State for the Colonies, had Tudor’s back.

Imperial subjects, of course, sometimes found their own solutions to such problems. A hard-line British field marshal, atop the I.R.A. hit list, was gunned down in Belgravia in 1922. Tudor, worried he would be next, made himself scarce. By the following year, he and his Irish paramilitaries were propagating their tactics for suppressing natives in the British-controlled Mandate of Palestine, Churchill having decided that the violence-prone Tudor was just the fellow to train the colonial police. A letter from Tudor to Churchill that I recently came across crystallizes all the insouciance, cynicism, greed, callousness, and errant judgment of empire. He opens by telling Churchill that he’s just commanded his troops to slaughter Adwan Bedouins who had been marching on Amman to protest high taxes levied on them by their notoriously extravagant emir. This tribe was “invariably friendly to Great Britain,” Tudor writes, a touch ruefully. But, he adds, “politics are not my affair.”

Tudor had cheery news to impart, too. Not only could the Mandate be a “wonderful tourist country,” but prospectors had discovered vast sums’ worth of potash in the Dead Sea valley. Should Britain appropriate the resources and increase the policing budget, its difficulties in the region would “smooth out,” he told Churchill, assuring him that Palestinians would be easier to pacify than the Irish: “They are a different people, and it’s unlikely that the Arab if handled firmly will ever do much more than agitate and talk.”

In the twentieth century’s hierarchy of state-sponsored violence, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Hirohito’s Japan typically take top spots. The actions of a few European empires have invited harsh scrutiny, too—Belgium’s conduct in Congo, France’s in Algeria, and Portugal’s in Angola and Mozambique. Britain is rarely seen as among the worst offenders, given a reputation for decency that the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins has spent more than two decades trying to undermine. “Legacy of Violence” (Knopf), her astringent new history of the British Empire, brings detailed context to individual stories like Tudor’s. Visiting archives in a dozen countries over four continents, examining hundreds of oral histories, and drawing on the work of social historians and political theorists, Elkins traces the Empire’s arc across centuries and theatres of crisis. As the sole imperial power that remained a liberal democracy throughout the twentieth century, Britain claimed to be distinct from Europe’s colonial powers in its commitment to bringing rule of law, enlightened principles, and social progress to its colonies. Elkins contends that Britain’s use of systematic violence was no better than that of its rivals. The British were simply more skilled at hiding it.

More than half a century after the British Empire entered its endgame, historians are nowhere near a full assessment of the carnage shrouded by its preacherly cant, and, later, by administrators’ bonfires of documents as they prepared for the last boat out. The richest sense we have of the damage inflicted on colonies tends to come in regional silos. Elkins doggedly links them, moving from South Africa to India, Ireland to Palestine, and on to Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and Aden, revealing a pattern visible only in the long view. As military and police personnel crisscrossed the Empire, spreading techniques of repression far and wide, the higher-ups rarely checked such violence. Instead, over and again, they gave it the full force of law—sustaining more brutality still.

It’s startling to recall that, not so long ago, leading historians accepted the images of empire’s end that were projected in propagandistic newsreels—governors-general in plumed helmets and starched whites inviting grateful natives to the podium. “Next to no fighting,” concluded the Cambridge historian John Gallagher, one of the Old Guard whom Elkins has in her sights. She counters that the practice of blowing Indian sepoys from cannons after the 1857 uprising, the Maxim-gun slaughter of Mahdists in the eighteen-nineties, the use of concentration camps in the Boer wars, the massacre of peaceful protesters in Amritsar, reprisal killings and the sacking of civilian property in Ireland: all this state-inflicted savagery was just the British Empire warming up. In her account, the British paramilitary cadre, many of them trained by Tudor’s Toughs, became the basis of an increasingly violent ruling culture that sought to reassert control in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Empire needed colonial resources to rebuild a depleted economy and to bulk up a waning geopolitical status.

We misunderstand the end of empire, Elkins says, because the old liberal imperial historiography focussed more on high policy—the stratagems of what Gallagher and his cohort termed the “official mind”—than on the acts of get-it-done enforcers in the field. The striking thing, she suggests, is not how much the denizens of Whitehall didn’t grasp about the retail-level mayhem but, rather, how much they did. Elkins draws on the work of Uday Singh Mehta, Karuna Mantena, and other theorists who argue that British liberalism, for all its talk of universal freedoms, served the goals of empire by rationalizing its domination of other peoples. (Colonial pupils, in their political short pants, required firm instruction before they could be awarded their liberties.) Indeed, the main reason that the British Empire was able to sustain itself for more than two centuries, she maintains, was that the British model of state violence came wrapped in this “velvet glove” of liberal reform.

Add to its longevity an unrivalled global footprint, and the British Empire’s baneful legacy may well have been deeper and more diffuse than that of any other modern state. Was British liberal imperialism, given the extent of the damage it inflicted over generations, a more malevolent influence on world history than even Nazi Fascism? It’s a question that Elkins’s new book implicitly poses. And her first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Imperial Reckoning” (2005), is a lesson in not discounting her pointed inferences too swiftly.

When the British Trinidadian intellectual C. L. R. James reflected, in old age, on his standard-setting account of the Haitian Revolution against the French, he chided himself for an overreliance on white witnesses. Had he worked a little harder, he believed, he might have unearthed more Haitian perspectives. A vast amount of what is understood today about the experience of colonial subjects still comes through white, Western eyes, often those of ruling administrators, missionaries, and travellers. “Imperial Reckoning” did its part to rectify that great imbalance in the historiography of the British Empire.

It probed one of the grimmest periods in British colonial history: the suppression of a nineteen-fifties uprising of a clandestine Kenyan nationalist movement, the Mau Mau, whose name subsequently became a byword for native barbarity. Elkins, working in British and Kenyan archives as a young scholar, noticed gaps in the record-keeping from this period which suggested that the British had culled the files. Some incriminating documents had survived, though, and she started gathering evidence that the British had detained far more than the eighty thousand Kenyans they had previously acknowledged, and that among the tactics the Empire used against the Mau Mau was outright torture. (“With possibly a few exceptions,” read one report she uncovered, the detainees “are of the type which understands and reacts to violence.”) Thus began what she termed an “odyssey” of research, including field work in rural Kenya—potholed roads, battered Subaru—which ultimately brought to light the harrowing accounts of some three hundred survivors of the campaign against the Mau Mau.

In “Imperial Reckoning,” Elkins moved deftly between oral and archival histories to describe a British strategy of detention, beatings, starvation, torture, forced hard labor, rape, and castration, designed to break the resistance of a people, the Kikuyu, who, having been dispossessed by the British and then, during the Second World War, enlisted to fight for them, had plenty of reason to resist. In 1957, a British colonial governor informed his superiors in London that “violent shock” was the only way to break down hard-core adherents, justifying a brutal campaign called Operation Progress. More than a million men, women, and children were forced into barbed-wire village compounds and concentration camps for reëducation in circumstances that the colony’s attorney general at the time called “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.”

When Elkins’s book won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, some . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Later in the review:

y the late nineteen-thirties, a revolt was under way in Palestine, ignited by radical populist movements that had sprung up in the towns and cities. Dispossessed rural Arabs flocked to these urban areas as Zionist colonies rapidly expanded to accommodate Jewish refugees from Europe. To quash the uprising, the policing apparatus that Hughie Tudor had helped build grew to twenty-five thousand men, including two Army divisions. (Tudor himself, fearful of continued I.R.A. death threats, had decided on a quieter life as a fish trader in Newfoundland.) Elkins, building on recent work by Laleh Khalili, Georgina Sinclair, and other historians, shows how imperial tactics converged in that fighting force.

From Ireland had come paramilitary techniques and the use of armored cars; from Mesopotamia, expertise in aerial bombing and the strafing of villages; from South Africa, the use of Dobermans for tracking and attacking suspects; from India, interrogation methods and the systematic use of solitary confinement; and, from the Raj’s North-West Frontier, the use of human shields to clear land mines. As one soldier recalled about the deployment of Arab prisoners, “If there was any land mines it was them that hit them. Rather a dirty trick, but we enjoyed it.” Other practices seem to have been homegrown by the British in Palestine: night raids on suspect communities, oil-soaked sand stuffed down native throats, open-air cages for holding villagers, mass demolitions of houses. While perfecting such tactics on the Palestinians, Elkins suggests, officers were gaining skills that were put to use when they were later dispatched to Aden (in the south of present-day Yemen), to the Gold Coast, to Northern Rhodesia, to Kenya, and to Cyprus. Palestine was, in short, the Empire’s leading atelier of coercive repression.

]

To legitimate the control machine in Palestine, the British raked their empire again, this time for ways of securing legal impunity. Emergency codes were imported from Ireland, to permit collective reprisals, detention, and the destruction of property, and from India, to authorize censorship and deportation. Although military officials sought martial law in the Mandate, the Attorney and Solicitor Generals in London denied the request. They worried about the precedent of the Crown ceding power to the military, and, besides, Palestinian courts might well object that no state of war existed. A more elegant solution was to augment the power of the civilian executive. A 1937 order conferred on him the right to make whatever regulations “appear to him in his unfettered discretion to be necessary or expedient for securing the public safety, the defense of Palestine, the maintenance of public order and the suppression of mutiny, rebellion and riot, and for maintaining supplies and services essential to the life of the community.” British troops and police were thus free to operate “virtually without restraint or fear of prosecution,” Elkins writes. Just as with the repertoire of torture and suppression, these guides to imperial impunity would become models for future campaigns.

Written by Leisureguy

28 March 2022 at 5:49 pm

A Dangerous Mind: Angela Stent on Understanding Putin

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Jonathan Tepperman interviews Angela Stent in The Octavian Report:

What was Putin thinking? In the last few weeks, Russia’s president has made so many strange mistakes—from assuming he could easily seize Ukraine to expecting his actions would divide the West—that many analysts have been left scratching their heads, wondering what’s going through his mind and whether he’s still thinking capable of rational thought in the first place. That last question has become especially important, since NATO’s ability to contain and deter Russia while avoiding a new World War will depend on its leader acting in a predictable—or at least comprehensible—manner. So last Friday, I turned to Angela Stent—a leading academic, former U.S. government official, and the author, most recently, of Putin’s Worldfor insight into how Russia’s dictator works and what he’s likely to do next.

Octavian Report: Putin seems to have expected the war in Ukraine to be short and easy. How did he get things so wrong?

Angela Stent: One can only assume that the information he was getting from the people around him wasn’t accurate. Were they giving him wrong information because they knew that’s what he wanted to hear, or were they themselves misinformed? We don’t know. But Putin clearly thinks that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. He clearly believed that the Ukrainians would welcome the Russians with open arms, or at least that they wouldn’t fight back. He doesn’t understand that even in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, people feel very Ukrainian.

OR: It seems that if he’d used a more minimal approach, like the one he used in Georgia or with Crimea—invading part of the country and supporting the separatists—he could have easily succeeded and destabilized Ukraine in the process. Why did he abandon a strategy that had served him so well in the past?

Stent: Well, his ultimate objective is to subjugate Ukraine, to control Ukraine, to put a government in power that’s pro-Russian. Beyond that, he wants to recreate a union of Slavic states: Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

OR: Why do you think the Russian military has made so many tactical blenders? Their planning and logistics have been terrible. Did the West overestimate how good Russia’s military forces had become?

Stent: I think we may have. After the Georgia-Russia war, the Russians built up their military again. It has performed pretty well in Syria and in some other parts of the world where they’ve intervened. But all of those interventions were limited and were done at low cost. This is the first massive military movement by Russia we’ve seen. And maybe the problem was that Russia hasn’t undertaken a large-scale invasion like this before. We may have overestimated how professional Russia’s army is. It’s still improvising in this war.

OR: Why has Putin been so slow to bring his full military power to bear?

Stent: He thought it . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 March 2022 at 9:11 pm

Great movie: “The Ghost Writer”

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Directed by Roman Polanski, with Ewan MacGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson, et al. Worth watching closely. Netflix. From 2010

Written by Leisureguy

4 January 2022 at 12:00 am

A Guantanamo Detainee’s Case Has Been Languishing Without Action Since 2008. The Supreme Court Wants to Know Why.

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The US moves steadily away from the rule of law. Raymond Bonner reports for ProPublica:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday waded into the case of Abu Zubaydah, a terrorism suspect whose request that the U.S. release him from Guantanamo Bay or charge him with a crime has languished without action for more than 13 years.

The court was hearing a case on another issue: Whether the U.S. government could cite “state secrets” to prevent Zubaydah’s lawyers from taking depositions from the CIA contractors who subjected Zubaydah to waterboarding and other methods of torture.

But several justices appeared baffled by a question ProPublica raised more than six years ago: Why have the federal courts declined to rule on the petition Zubaydah filed back in July 2008 challenging the legality of his detention?

The Supreme Court ruled in June of 2008 that Guantanamo detainees had a right to file what is known as a habeas corpus petition — the phrase is Latin for “you have the body.” Habeas actions require the government to go before a judge and either release the person it is holding or bring charges. Zubaydah’s lawyers have been trying without success to elicit a ruling ever since.

In their questions at Wednesday’s oral arguments, the justices appeared unaware that Zubaydah’s plea for release has yet to be heard.

“Have you filed a habeas or something, get him out?” Chief Justice John Roberts wanted to know.

Yes, 14 years ago, replied Daniel F. Klein, Zubaydah’s lawyer.

That answer seemed to confound several of the justices.

“They don’t decide?” Justice Stephen Breyer asked. “You just let him sit there?”

“I don’t understand why he is still there after 14 years,” Breyer said later to the government counsel, Brian H. Fletcher.

Zubaydah’s lawyers filed a habeas action in 2008 — a month after the Supreme Court ruling that granted Guantanamo detainees that right — in federal court in Washington, D.C., and it was assigned to Judge Richard W. Roberts. Roberts made no substantive rulings in the years that followed and had failed to rule on any of the 16 motions by Zubaydah’s lawyers when he left the bench in 2016. The case was then assigned to Judge Emmet Sullivan, who has yet to rule on the petition.

The right of a detained person to file a habeas petition seeking release dates back to the Magna Carta, and the Supreme Court has said in other cases that it is meant to be a “swift and imperative remedy.”

Frustrated by the inaction in the case, Zubaydah’s lawyers filed what is known as a writ of mandamus with the federal appeals court in 2019 asking that the higher court order Sullivan to rule. It was a highly unusual move, as lawyers do not like to antagonize judges hearing their cases.

The appeals court denied the motion, but there has since been some movement in the case. Sullivan has issued a discovery order, requiring the CIA to turn over some documents to Zubaydah’s lawyers. Among them were Zubaydah’s medical records, which his lawyers have been seeking since 2009.

The documents that the CIA turned over were heavily redacted, and the agency has said that it will take as long as six years to complete its review of what can be made public.

Zubaydah, now 50 years old, has been in American custody since 2002, first held, and tortured, by the CIA interrogators at so-called black sites in Thailand and Poland, before being sent to Guantanamo, where he has been held since 2003. Those facts are not in dispute and have been described in a Senate report. Poland’s former president has acknowledged his country’s role in holding Zubaydah.

The case before the justices on Wednesday arose as a result of an ongoing Polish investigation into whether the country’s officials were complicit in the mistreatment of Zubaydah.

Zubaydah’s lawyers said they were prepared to assist that inquiry by taking depositions from James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two psychologists who questioned Zubaydah while he was at the black site in Poland. Both were CIA contractors.

The Trump administration moved to bar any questioning of Mitchell and Jessen, saying . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it is equally disgusting.

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2021 at 3:42 pm

The enormous costs and elusive benefits of the war on terror: 20 years, $6 trillion, 900,000 lives

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Dylan Matthews reports in Vox:

On the evening of September 11, 2001, hours after two hijacked airliners had destroyed the World Trade Center towers and a third had hit the Pentagon building, President George W. Bush announced that the country was embarking on a new kind of war.

“America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism,” Bush announced in a televised address to the nation.

It was Bush’s first use of the term that would come to define his presidency and deeply shape those of his three successors. The global war on terror, as the effort came to be known, was one of the most expansive and far-reaching policy initiatives in modern American history, and certainly the biggest of the 2000s.

It saw the US invade and depose the governments of two nations and engage in years- or decades-long occupations of each; the initiation of a new form of warfare via drones spanning thousands of miles of territory from Pakistan to Somalia to the Philippines; the formalization of a system of detention without charge and pervasive torture of accused militants; numerous smaller raids by special forces teams around the world; and major changes to air travel and border security in the US proper.

The “war on terror” is a purposely vague term. President Barack Obama famously rejected it in a 2013 speech — favoring instead “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists.”

But 9/11 signaled the beginning of a distinct policy regime from the one that preceded it, and a regime that exists in many forms to the present day, even with the US exit from Afghanistan.

Over the past 20 years, the costs of this new policy regime — costs in terms of lives lost, money spent, people and whole communities displaced, bodies tortured — have become clear. It behooves us, then, to try to answer a simple yet vast question: Was it worth it?

A good-faith effort to answer this question — to tally the costs and benefits on the ledger and not just resort to one’s ideological priors — is more challenging than you’d think. That’s largely because it involves quantifying the inherently unquantifiable. If, as proponents argue, the war on terror kept America safe, how do you quantify the psychological value of not being in a state of constant fear of the next attack? What about the damage of increased Islamophobia and violent targeting of Muslims (and those erroneously believed to be Muslims) stoked by the war on terror? There are dozens more unquantifiable purported costs and benefits like these.

But some things can be measured. There have been no 9/11-scale terrorist attacks in the United States in the past 20 years. Meanwhile, according to the most recent estimates from Brown University’s Costs of War Projectat least 897,000 people around the world have died in violence that can be classified as part of the war on terror; at least 38 million people have been displaced due to these wars; and the effort has cost the US at least $5.8 trillion, not including about $2 trillion more needed in health care and disability coverage for veterans in decades to come.

When you lay it all out on paper, an honest accounting of the war on terror yields a dismal conclusion: Even with an incredibly generous view of the war on terror’s benefits, the costs have vastly exceeded them. The past 20 years of war represent a colossal failure by the US government, one it has not begun to reckon with or atone for.

We are now used to the fact that the US government routinely bombs foreign countries with which it is not formally or even informally at war, in the name of killing terrorists. We are used to the fact that the National Security Agency works with companies like Facebook and Google to collect our private information en masse. We are used to the fact that 39 men are sitting in Guantanamo Bay, almost all detained indefinitely without trial.

These realities were not inevitable. They were chosen as part of a policy regime that has done vastly more harm than good.

What America and the world might have gained from the war on terror

Before going further, it’s important to define our terms. . . 

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s a harsh indictment. One of several charts in the article:

After 9/11, a rush of national unity. Then, quickly, more and new divisions.

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Dan Balz had an interesting column in the Washington Post yesterday. (The gift link I used by-passes the paywall.) The column begins:

On Monday, the leaders of Congress are to gather with colleagues at noon for a bipartisan ceremony marking the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It will be reminiscent of the gathering on the night of the attacks, when members of Congress, many holding small American flags, stood on the Capitol steps and spontaneously sang “God Bless America.” But so much has changed.

Twenty years ago, members of Congress were joined in a determined and resilient expression of national unity at an unprecedented moment in the nation’s history, a day that brought deaths and heroism but also shock, fear and confusion. Monday’s ceremony will no doubt be somber in its remembrance of what was lost that day, but it will come not as expression of a united America but simply as a momentary cessation in political wars that rage and have deepened in the years since those attacks.

In a video message to Americans released Friday, President Biden spoke of how 9/11 had united the country and said that moment represented “America at its best.” He called such unity “our greatest strength” while noting it is “all too rare.” The unity that followed the attacks didn’t last long. Americans reverted more quickly than some analysts expected to older patterns of partisanship. With time, new divisions over new issues have emerged, and they make the prospect of a united nation ever more distant.

On a day for somber tribute, the man who was president on 9/11, George W. Bush, spoke most directly of those new divisions — and threats — in a speech in Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 went down on the day of the attacks. Bush warned that dangers to the country now come not only across borders “but from violence that gathers from within.” It was an apparent but obvious reference to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

The question is often asked: As the United States has plunged deeper into division and discord, is there anything that could spark a change, anything big enough to become a catalyst for greater national unity? But if ­9/11 doesn’t fit that model, what does? And look what happened in the aftermath of that trauma.

For a time, the shock of the attacks did bring the country together. Bush’s approval ratings spiked to 90 percent in a rally-round-the-flag reaction that was typical when the country is faced with external threats or crises.

One notable expression of the unity at the time came from Al Gore, the former vice president who had lost the bitter 2000 election to Bush after a disputed recount in Florida and a controversial Supreme Court decision.

Speaking at a Democratic Party dinner in Iowa less than a month after the attacks, Gore called Bush “my commander in chief,” adding, “We are united behind our president, George W. Bush, behind the effort to seek justice, not revenge, to make sure this will never, ever happen again. And to make sure we have the strongest unity in America that we have ever had.” The Democratic audience rose, applauding and cheering.

Trust in government rose in those days after the attacks. Shortly after 9/11, trust in government jumped to 64 percent, up from 30 percent before the attacks, according to Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm that was closely tracking public attitudes to the attacks. By the summer of 2002, the firm found that trust had fallen back, to 39 percent.

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Five years after the attacks, then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), now deceased, was quoted as saying that America was “more divided and more partisan than I’ve ever seen us.” Today, after many contentious elections, political warfare over economic, cultural and social issues and a domestic attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, many Americans would say things have become worse.

As he prepared the U.S. response to the attacks by al-Qaeda in the fall of 2001, Bush made clear the United States would go it alone if necessary, assembling what was called a “coalition of the willing.” He put other nations on notice, saying the United States would hold them accountable in the campaign against the terrorists. “You’re either with us or against us in the fight,” he said.

Bush described the world in Manichaean terms: good vs. evil.

Today’s politics at home is often practiced that way. That phrase — “with us or against us” — could stand as a black-and-white expression of the way in which many Americans approach the political battles: all in with the team, red or blue, or not in at all. If you win, I lose. No middle ground.

Lack of imagination on the part of Americans had helped 9/11 to happen. No one in the upper reaches of government  . . .

Continue reading. No paywall on this one.

Written by Leisureguy

12 September 2021 at 10:35 am

The puzzle of ownership and the rules about it

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On a recent episode of Amicus,  Dalia Lithwick spoke with law professor Michael Heller aboutMine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives, which he co-wrote with James Salzman.

Mine! seeks to do for ownership what Freakonomics did for incentives and what Nudge did for our cognitive biases. It opens up a new, counterintuitive, and fascinating way to think about the world that we all take for granted. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate has an edited and condensed version of the conversation worth reading, but the first example struck home to me: the space in back of a passenger seat on an airplane has dual ownership. It belongs to the person in the seat, who can lean back into that space, and it also belongs to the person in the seat behind, who will use that space for (say) knees and laptop.

Often, as you can imagine and perhaps have experienced, the two putative owners dispute ownership, but they overlook the fact that they both own the space because the airline sold that space twice, getting money both from the person who has the right to lean back (as shown by the button the chair) and the person who has a right to have knees and laptop.

Although the two passengers often end up angry at each other, the proper target of their ire should be the airline. If a realtor sold a house simultaneously to two different families, they would quickly understand that the person who is at fault — the person, not to put too fine a point on it, is dishonest — is the realtor. Both families are blameless, because both made the purchase in good faith. It was the thieving realtor who will (or at least should) go to jail, just as it is the thieving airline that should suffer consequences.

The consequences for the airlines should be a law that defines the amount of space an airline passenger has for undisputed use, and that should include the seat, a space in front for knees and laptop, and a space behind for reclining. Unfortunately, US business corporations pretty much control Congress, so that Congress usually works on their behalf rather on the behalf of the public. Still, the party at fault is clear, and the solution is clear. And nothing will be done.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 4:09 pm

A Saudi official’s harrowing account of torture reveals the regime’s brutality

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David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post:

Held captive by Saudi agents, Salem Almuzaini, once an official of the regime, was beaten repeatedly on the soles of his feet, his back and his genitals, according to a harrowing account of his torture and captivity filed in a Canadian court. He says he was whipped, starved, battered with iron bars and electrocuted; he also describes being ordered to crawl on all fours and bark like a dog. Accompanying his report are graphic photos of Almuzaini’s extensive scars from injuries he said were inflicted by operatives of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

As set out in the court papers, Almuzaini was first seized in Dubai on Sept. 26, 2017, by United Arab Emirates security officials and sent to the kingdom; he vanished on Aug. 24, 2020, after visiting a senior Saudi state security official, and has not been seen since. His description of his treatment in the intervening years — at two Saudi prisons, and at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, where suspected opponents of the regime were detained in 2017 — offers a horrifying view of the lengths to which the regime under the crown prince, known as MBS, has gone to punish its perceived enemies.

His narrative, translated from Arabic and filed in June in an Ontario court, was sent via text message to the cellphone of his wife, Hissah, in September 2019, according to her family, with instructions that she release it if he were to disappear again. The chilling description, reminiscent of memoirs of suffering by political prisoners in Iran, Chile, South Africa and the Soviet Union, offers the most extensive personal account to date of the alleged brutal conduct of the Saudi regime.

“The days passed, and I continued to fear hearing the keys and the door opening,” Almuzaini writes at one point. “I didn’t know what was in store for me, whether torture or elimination.” He describes how one interrogator ordered him to kiss his shoe, then struck his head. “The sad irony is that there was no other agency I had helped more than the Mabahith and Special Affairs, and now I was under their arrest and subject to their torture,” Almuzaini writes of the Saudi secret police.

The degree of psychological torture and attempted dehumanization that Almuzaini describes is as horrifying as the physical abuse. At one point, his interrogator told him to reach into a box and choose a whip for his next beating; when he hesitated, the interrogator chose one and used it to lash Almuzaini while urinating. Almuzaini was instructed not to say his name, and instead refer to himself as “9,” At another point, he was ordered to eat his dinner off the floor, like a dog.

“I was beset with worry on all sides,” Almuzaini recounts. “I worried for my mother, wife, children, sisters, uncle, companies, employees, my future, the pain in my body, the humiliation, and the fear. In reality, feelings cannot describe it. All I’ll say is that the injustice and repression of mankind were intense. I felt weak and powerless.”

The Saudi Embassy in Washington, informed about the allegations of torture by Almuzaini and his wife, declined to comment, as did the embassy of the UAE.

Almuzaini, a graduate of the Saudi police academy, joined the Interior Ministry and supervised airline projects for Mohammed bin Nayef, who was then in charge of the ministry’s counterterrorism projects and later interior minister and crown prince. According to Almuzaini’s account, when MBN decided to create a private airline company called Alpha Star Aviation Services, he asked Almuzaini to run it. Later, when MBN formed his own commercial private airline company, Sky Prime Aviation, he asked Almuzaini to oversee it in Dubai.

Lawyers for Saad Aljabri, a former Saudi intelligence official, have argued in legal documents that these air operations were initially created to shield Saudi and U.S. covert intelligence operations against terrorist groups.

Almuzaini’s alleged crime, judging from the questions he says he was asked by his torturers, was that he aided in a plot to skim money from the two airlines — something he says he denied throughout the torture sessions. Aljabri has similarly denied any involvement in misusing funds. Companies controlled by the Saudi government have sued Aljabri in Canada, where he now lives, to recover money they claim he stole.

But Almuzaini’s real offense, as outlined in the court documents, may have been that he married Hissah, the daughter of Aljabri. MBS, a rival of MBN, has been pursuing Aljabri since 2017, when he deposed MBN as crown prince and Aljabri fled the kingdom. MBS has been trying to force him to return to the kingdom since then.

Almuzaini’s wife described one gruesome moment that her husband had confided. “He said that once, before he was struck a hundred times without pause, he was told ‘this is on behalf of Saad Aljabri,’ and ‘this is what you get for marrying his daughter,’” she wrote. “Sometimes, the interrogators told Salem while beating him that ‘we are adding extra lashes and beatings because your father-in-law is not here, so you can take his portion.’”

The Almuzaini affidavit was filed to support Aljabri’s claim that, as his lawyers argue in a recent court filing, MBS has “sought to consolidate his power by persecuting his perceived rivals under the guise of an ‘anti-corruption’ campaign” and that payments to Aljabri “were fully authorized and approved” by MBN and other Saudi authorities.

The alleged treatment of Almuzaini is just one example of MBS’s seeming obsession with Aljabri’s family. The crown prince blocked two of Aljabri’s then-teenage children, Omar and Sarah, from leaving the country in 2017, when he began his internal putsch to consolidate power and has used them as seeming hostages to try to force their father to return to the kingdom. Omar and Sarah are now imprisoned. I described their plight in The Post in June 2020, and it was featured in a recent report by Human Rights Watch. Aljabri’s friends, relatives and business associates have also been detained.

After Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul in October 2018 on what the CIA says were the orders of MBS, Almuzaini had a flash of recognition. He told his wife that the people who were interrogating him included Maher Mutreb, publicly identified as the leader of the Istanbul hit team, and seven of its other members, according to his wife’s affidavit. Among those present during his torture was MBS’s close assistant, Saud al-Qahtani, the affidavit alleges.

In a bizarre irony, two planes owned by Sky Prime, the airline Almuzaini helped run for MBN, were used to transport to Istanbul the hit team that killed Khashoggi, after MBS had appropriated the company, according to court documents filed by Aljabri’s lawyers.

When Almuzaini was held at the Ritz-Carlton for about six weeks starting in late 2017, the torture stopped, according to his wife’s affidavit. The shakedown was now about getting money — as was the case with about 400 other prominent Saudis, including princes and global financiers, who were rounded up at the Ritz-Carlton in November 2017 and forced by MBS’s operatives to hand over assets.

“We’re going to take all of your money,” Almuzaini writes that he was told at the Ritz-Carlton. “We don’t recognize the contracts or any of your nonsense. We’re going to return the money to the state.” He eventually agreed to sign over 400 million Saudi riyals, about $106 million at current exchange rates.

Almuzaini wrote . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2021 at 3:59 pm

Liz Cheney and Big Lies (including lies of omission)

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Maureen Dowd has a good column in the NY Times:

I miss torturing Liz Cheney.

But it must be said that the petite blonde from Wyoming suddenly seems like a Valkyrie amid halflings.

She is willing to sacrifice her leadership post — and risk her political career — to continue calling out Donald Trump’s Big Lie. She has decided that, if the price of her job is being as unctuous to Trump as Kevin McCarthy is, it isn’t worth it, because McCarthy is totally disgracing himself.

It has been a dizzying fall for the scion of one of the most powerful political families in the land, a conservative chip off the old block who was once talked about as a comer, someone who could be the first woman president.

How naïve I was to think that Republicans would be eager to change the channel after Trump cost them the Senate and the White House and unleashed a mob on them.

I thought the Donald would evaporate in a poof of orange smoke, ending a supremely screwed-up period of history. But the loudest mouth is not shutting up. And Republicans continue to listen, clinging to the idea that the dinosaur is the future. “We can’t grow without him,” Lindsey Graham said.

Denied Twitter, Trump is focusing on his other favorite blood sport: hunting down dynasties. “Whether it’s the Cheneys, the Bushes or the lesser bloodlines — such as the Romneys or the Murkowskis — Trump has been relentless in his efforts to force them to bend the knee,” David Siders wrote in Politico.

Yet an unbowed Liz Cheney didn’t mince words when, in a Washington Post op-ed a few days ago, she implored the stooges in her caucus to “steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality.”

That trademark Cheney bluntness made Liz the toast of MSNBC and CNN, where chatterers praised her as an avatar of the venerable “fact-based” Republican Party decimated by Trump.

But if Liz Cheney wants to be in the business of speaking truth to power, she’s going to have to dig a little deeper.

Let’s acknowledge who created the template for Trump’s Big Lie.

It was her father, Dick Cheney, whose Big Lie about the Iraq war led to the worst mistake in the history of American foreign policy. Liz, who was the captain of her high school cheerleading team and titled her college thesis “The Evolution of Presidential War Powers,” cheered on her dad as he spread fear, propaganda and warped intelligence.

From her patronage perch in the State Department during the Bush-Cheney years, she bolstered her father’s trumped-up case for an invasion of Iraq. Even after no W.M.D.s were found, she continued to believe the invasion was the right thing to do.

“She almost thrives in an atmosphere where the overall philosophy is discredited and she is a lonely voice,” a State Department official who worked with Liz told Joe Hagan for a 2010 New York magazine profile of the younger Cheney on her way up.

She was a staunch defender of the torture program. “Well, it wasn’t torture, Norah, so that’s not the right way to lay out the argument,” she instructed Norah O’Donnell in 2009, looking on the bright side of waterboarding.

She backed the futile, 20-year occupation of the feudal Afghanistan. (Even Bob Gates thinks we should have left in 2002.) Last month, when President Biden announced plans to pull out, Liz Cheney — who wrote a book with her father that accused Barack Obama of abandoning Iraq and making America weaker — slapped back: “We know that this kind of pullback is reckless. It’s dangerous.”

For many years, she had no trouble swimming in Fox News bile. Given the chance to denounce the Obama birther conspiracy, she demurred, interpreting it live on air as people being “uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas.”

Thanks to that kind of reasoning, we ended up with a president who fomented an attack on the nation at home.

In her Post piece, Cheney wrote that her party is at a “turning point” and that Republicans “must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”

Sage prose from someone who was a lieutenant to her father when he assaulted checks and balances, shredding America’s Constitution even as he imposed one on Iraq.

Because of 9/11, Dick Cheney thought he could suspend the Constitution, attack nations preemptively and trample civil liberties in the name of the war on terror. (And for his own political survival.)

Keeping Americans afraid was a small price to pay for engorging executive power, which the former Nixon and Ford aide thought had been watered down too much after Watergate.

By his second term,

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2021 at 11:24 am

“Dominion”: A full-length film about the relationship between human and non-human animals

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Watch this film to see the degree to which it reflects your own values and outlook.

Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2021 at 9:51 am

Stranded sailor allowed to leave abandoned ship after four years

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As I read this BBC report by Paul Adams, I was thinking of the Indian crew of the Evergreen cargo ship that got stuck in the Suez canal and wondered how long they would be forced to remain on that ship. The report begins:

Mohammed Aisha joined his “cursed” ship, the MV Aman, on 5 May 2017.

Today, after spending almost four years on board stranded off the Egyptian coast, he was freed and flown home to Syria. So how does he feel?

His text, from the aircraft on the tarmac at Cairo airport, was brief.

“Relief. Joy.”

And then came a voice message.

“How do I feel? Like I finally got out of prison. I’m finally going to be rejoined with my family. I’m going to see them again.”

It marks the end of an ordeal which has taken its toll on Mohammed’s physical and mental health. He was, after all, condemned to a life without power, sanitation or company.

It began in July 2017, when the MV Aman was detained at the Egyptian port of Adabiya. The cargo ship was held because it had expired safety equipment and classification certificates.

It should have been easy enough to resolve, but the ship’s Lebanese contractors failed to pay for fuel and the MV Aman’s owners in Bahrain were in financial difficulty.

With the ship’s Egyptian captain ashore, a local court declared Mohammed, the ship’s chief officer, the MV Aman’s legal guardian.

Mohammed, who was born in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus, says he wasn’t told what the order meant and only found out months later, as the ship’s other crew members started to leave.

For four years, life – and death – passed Mohammed by. He watched as ships sailed past, in and out of the nearby Suez Canal.

During the recent blockage caused by the giant container ship Ever Given, he counted dozens of ships waiting for the traffic jam to ease.

He has even seen his brother, a fellow seafarer, sail past more than once. The brothers spoke on the phone but were too far apart even to wave.

In August 2018, he learned that his mother, a teacher responsible for his excellent English, had died. That was Mohammed’s low point.

“I seriously considered ending my life,” he told me.

By August 2019, Mohammed was alone but for the occasional guard and trapped on a vessel with no diesel and, consequently, no power. He was legally obliged to stay aboard and was unpaid, demoralised and feeling increasingly unwell.

He said the ship was like a grave at night.

“You can’t see anything. You can’t hear anything,” he said. “It’s like you’re in a coffin.”

In March 2020, a storm blew the Aman off its anchorage. The ship drifted five miles (8km), eventually running aground a few hundred metres from the shoreline.

It was terrifying at the time, but Mohammed thought it was an act of God. Now he was able to swim ashore every few days, buy food and recharge his phone.

Astonishing as Mohammed’s story is, his experience is not unique. In fact, seafarer abandonment is on the rise. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including a discussion of the Evergreen ship and the (enormous) scope of the problem.

Written by Leisureguy

23 April 2021 at 3:55 pm

“I Survived 18 Years in Solitary Confinement”

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Ian Manuel was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole when he was 14 years old. He spent 18 years in solitary confinement. His forthcoming memoir, My Time Will Come, describes his experience. His essay in the NY Times is presumably extracted from that book. It begins:

Imagine living alone in a room the size of a freight elevator for almost two decades.

As a 15-year-old, I was condemned to long-term solitary confinement in the Florida prison system, which ultimately lasted for 18 consecutive years. From 1992 to 2010. From age 15 to 33. From the end of the George H.W. Bush administration to the beginnings of the Obama era.

For 18 years I didn’t have a window in my room to distract myself from the intensity of my confinement. I wasn’t permitted to talk to my fellow prisoners or even to myself. I didn’t have healthy, nutritious food; I was given just enough to not die.

These circumstances made me think about how I ended up in solitary confinement.

In the summer of 1990, shortly after finishing seventh grade, I was directed by a few older kids to commit a robbery. During the botched attempt, I shot a woman. She suffered serious injuries to her jaw and mouth but survived. It was reckless and foolish on my part, the act of a 13-year-old in crisis, and I’m simply grateful no one died.

For this I was arrested and charged as an adult with armed robbery and attempted murder.

My court-appointed lawyer advised me to plead guilty, telling me that the maximum sentence would be 15 years. So I did. But my sentence wasn’t 15 years — it was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

I was thrown into solitary confinement the day I arrived at the Reception and Medical Center, a state prison in Lake Butler, Fla., because of my young age. Three weeks in, I was transferred to the general population of a different prison. But a year and a half later, at age 15, I was put back into solitary confinement after being written up for a few minor infractions.

I had no idea that I would be in isolation for the next 18 years.

Florida has different levels of solitary confinement; I spent the majority of that time in one of the most restrictive. Nearly two decades caged in a roughly 7-by-10-foot room passed before I was rotated between the general population area and solitary for six more years. I was finally released from prison in 2016 thanks to my lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, and the Equal Justice Initiative.

Researchers have long concluded that solitary confinement causes post-traumatic stress disorder and impairs prisoners’ ability to adjust to society long after they leave their cell. United Nations standards on the treatment of prisoners prohibits solitary confinement for more than 15 days, declaring it “cruel, inhuman or degrading.”

Yet the practice, even for minors, is still common in the United States, and efforts to end it have been spotty: In 2016, the Obama administration banned juvenile solitary confinement in federal prisons, and a handful of states have advanced similar reforms for both children and adults.

More aggressive change is needed in state prison systems. Today, dozens of states still have little to no legislation prohibiting juvenile solitary confinement. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

At one point in the essay, he writes:

It is difficult to know the exact number of children in solitary confinement today. The Liman Center at Yale Law School estimated that 61,000 Americans (adults and children) were in solitary confinement in the fall of 2017. A 2010 report from the Department of Justice notes that 24 percent of the country’s children detained at the time were subjected to solitary confinement.

More generally, according to a 2015 Department of Justice report, about 20 percent of the adult prison population has spent some time in solitary, with 4.4 percent of the population in solitary on any given day in 2011-12. And in Florida, where I was incarcerated, approximately 10,000 people — more than 10 percent of its prison population — are in solitary confinement each day.

No matter the count, I witnessed too many people lose their minds while isolated. They’d involuntarily cross a line and simply never return to sanity. Perhaps they didn’t want to. Staying in their mind was the better, safer, more humane option.

After spending nearly two years in solitary confinement as a teenager at Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime, Kalief Browder died by suicide at 22 years old. Others, like Carina Montes, 29, died by suicide during solitary — even while she was on suicide watch.

Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, something prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, yet prisons continue to practice it.

The US has much work to do to achieve its ideals.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2021 at 6:58 am

Enhanced interrogation in practice: This Soldier’s Witness to the Iraq War Lie

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Torturing people who are merely suspects is something done by totalitarian governments — and also the US under George W. Bush. We know, even though the CIA deliberately destroyed the video recordings of the torture.

Frederic Wehrey writes in the NY Review of Books:

A few weeks before I deployed to Iraq as a young US military officer, in the spring of 2003, my French-born father implored me to watch The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s dramatic reenactment of the 1950s Algerian insurgency against French colonial rule. There are many political and aesthetic reasons to see this masterpiece of cinéma vérité, not least of which is its portrayal of the Algerian capital’s evocative old city, or Casbah. One winter morning in 2014, more than a decade after I first saw the film, I took a stroll down the Casbah’s rain-washed alleys and into the newer French-built city. Scenes from the black-and-white movie—like the landmark Milk Bar café where a female Algerian guerrilla sets off a bomb that kills French civilians—jumped to life. The ensuing French military response, memorably depicted in the film, included arbitrary arrests, torture, and “false flag” bombings that only inflamed the Algerian insurrection.

It was these moral perils of counterinsurgency that my father hinted at. “Keep your eyes open,” he told me. This was a prescient warning, one that served as the backdrop for my deployment, even if the Algerian analogy was imperfect and would become overused. As American soldiers soon faced a guerrilla and civil war in Iraq for which they were woefully ill-equipped, intellectually and militarily, The Battle of Algiers would be screened and discussed at the Pentagon. To this day, it is taught to West Point cadets as a cautionary tale.

Still, the full weight of the film’s lessons was not apparent to me in Iraq until one morning in the summer of 2003, when I received an urgent phone call about a captured Iraqi intelligence officer. My commander wanted me to go interview him at the Baghdad hospital where he was being treated for unspecified wounds.

I donned my Kevlar vest and grabbed my carbine for the trip to the so-called Green Zone in the city center, which was becoming increasingly dangerous because of bomb attacks and ambushes by a growing insurgency.

My own experience with this militancy was mostly of a distant nature—though my encounters were anything but impersonal. As an intelligence officer, I debriefed Iraqi sources and informants on insurgent groups and foreign fighters, which sometimes yielded detailed information that US soldiers would use to conduct raids, looking for weapons, explosives, insurgents, or wanted ex-regime figures. Since I read the after-action reports of these operations, I learned the names and ages of those who were captured. Sometimes, I even saw photographs of their faces. This established a sort of intimacy, a chain of causality between my actions and their fates.

In collecting the intelligence that drove these raids, I tried to vet and verify what I heard. Ninety percent of the information I discarded after rounds of questions. Much of it was outright fabrication by Iraqis seeking financial reward or favors from the US military. Others were trying lure American soldiers into helping them settle personal scores or eliminating their political, commercial, or sectarian rivals. The remainder of the information sometimes proved valid. And the resulting seizure of militants, weapons, or bomb-making materials did save lives.

On occasion, though, we did not sufficiently corroborate the information before an assault, or we got the location wrong. In the aftermath of such misdirected predawn raids on innocent Iraqi civilians, I remembered Pontecorvo’s film and would ask myself: “How many new insurgents did we just create?”

All of this was a departure from the original focus of my deployment, which was to interview former Iraqi officials about Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But once the insurgency started attacking American soldiers, Iraqis, and international organizations, US military commanders demanded that more intelligence resources be devoted to penetrating the insurgents’ networks—especially since the hunt for Saddam’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons was going nowhere.

Even so, I continued to chase down any leads I got on WMD. And that was what I assumed this call about the detained Iraqi spy was about. Instead, when I got to the hospital room in the Green Zone, I found myself seated across from a man who had been at the center of one of the biggest lies behind the US decision to invade Iraq.

When Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani was posted to the Iraqi embassy in Prague in the late 1990s under diplomatic cover, he quickly came under surveillance by the Czech security service. One morning in early April of 2001, an Arab informant working for the Czechs reported seeing al-Ani meeting with an Arab student at the Iraqi embassy. This student was identified, according to the report, as an Egyptian named Mohamed Atta—the man who, not long after, became the ringleader of the hijackers who carried out al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

The CIA and FBI later punched holes in this story; the Czech president himself subsequently repudiated it. To begin with, the informant had identified Atta as the man from the April 2001 meeting only upon seeing his photo published in the news after September 11. The FBI’s records of Atta put him in Virginia and Florida immediately before and after the supposed Prague meeting, and the agency uncovered no evidence of international travel. But none of this stopped the Iraq war hawks in the Bush administration from seizing on the so-called Prague Connection as proof of Saddam Hussein’s supposed complicity in terrorist attacks on American soil—and using it as a casus belli for the 2003 invasion.

There at the Baghdad hospital, I joined an FBI agent in questioning the bedridden al-Ani about his time in the Czech Republic. A diminutive man with a grizzled face creased by bouts of pain, he epitomized the type of drab regime functionary I’d come to know in Iraq all too well. He answered our questions straightforwardly. In the end, the hours-long session provided no evidence about the Prague meeting to contradict the debunking that had already appeared in the press. Al-Ani had never met Mohamed Atta or even heard of him until he saw news reports after September 11. Nor was he himself even in Prague on the day of the alleged encounter; he was out of town, seventy miles away.

Even more disturbing than this non-revelation, though, was his account of his capture that summer by US special operations forces and the reason for his hospitalization. Snatching him from his Baghdad home at night, US soldiers had bound his wrists, covered his head, and forced him to lie on the floor of a Humvee for the long trip to a detention facility. Within fifteen minutes of his confinement in the vehicle, he felt an unbearable burning sensation. A Humvee’s engine is located in the front and conducts heat to the rear bed, where al-Ani was lying facedown on the bare metal. He twisted and writhed from the pain, but his American guards thought he was resisting. One of the soldiers stepped harder on his back with his boot. “Jesus, Jesus, please,” he’d cried, he told me, hoping that this invocation in English would get them to relent.

In front of us in the hospital, he lifted his gown to show us the results: severe burns, in dark-hued patches, covered his stomach, thighs, feet, and palms. As a consequence, al-Ani would endure three months of hospitalization, which involved multiple skin grafts, as well as the amputation of his thumb and the loss of movement of a finger.

After the meeting, I relayed his account of these injuries to my commanding general, who later reported the matter to a Senate inquiry into detainee abuses. The US Department of Justice also included the FBI’s account of this same interview in the inspector general’s 2008 report on detainee interrogations. And, over several years, the US Army investigated the incident, concluding that al-Ani’s injuries were consistent with his story and that “the offences of Assault and Cruelty and Maltreatment was [sic] substantiated.” Despite that finding, the Army dropped the case.

To my knowledge, nobody was ever disciplined or punished for al-Ani’s mistreatment.

*

It is a cruel irony that this Iraqi man was first used as a prop for an American invasion and then subjected to disfiguring violence by soldiers who had carried out that invasion. But his story weighs on me in other ways. The abuses we’ve seen in US policing have deep, homegrown roots, but I am convinced that they are also partly a result of the militarization of law enforcement born of the Iraq War and America’s other overseas interventions. The Iraq disaster has rippled across virtually every facet of American life, deepening the inequalities that divide us, stirring a popular contempt for “expertise” that has opened the door to demagoguery, and contributing to the hollowing-out of our infrastructure and institutions in ways that have left the country dangerously exposed to future shocks.

The Iraq debacle is what the journalist Robert Draper, in his engrossing recent book on the decision to oust Saddam, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq, correctly calls . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 September 2020 at 4:59 pm

Operation Condor: the cold war conspiracy that terrorised South America

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The US has much to answer for if it ever truly faces its transgressions (e.g., torturing suspects, sometimes to death, under George W. Bush as an official and systematic program — and then deliberately destroying the video evidence). Giles Tremlett describes another example in the Guardian:

During the 1970s and 80s, eight US-backed military dictatorships jointly plotted the cross-border kidnap, torture, rape and murder of hundreds of their political opponents. Now some of the perpetrators are finally facing justice.

The last time Anatole Larrabeiti saw his parents, he was four years old. It was 26 September 1976, the day after his birthday. He remembers the shootout, the bright flashes of gunfire and the sight of his father lying on the ground, mortally wounded, outside their home in a suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina, with his mother lying beside him. Then Larrabeiti remembers being taken away by armed police, along with his 18-month-old sister, Victoria Eva.

The two children became prisoners. At first, they were held in a grimy car repair garage that had been turned into a clandestine torture centre. That was in another part of Buenos Aires, the city that their parents had moved to in June 1973, joining thousands of leftwing militants and former guerrillas fleeing a military coup in their native Uruguay. The following month, in October 1976, Anatole and Victoria Eva were taken to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and held at the military intelligence headquarters. A few days before Christmas, they were flown to a third country, Chile, in a small aircraft that climbed high above the Andes. Larrabeiti remembers looking down on snowy peaks from the plane.

Young children do not usually make epic journeys through three countries in as many months without parents or relatives. The closest thing they had to family was a jailer known as Aunt Mónica. It was probably Aunt Mónica who abandoned them in a large square, the Plaza O’Higgins, in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso, on 22 December 1976. Witnesses recall two young, well-dressed children stepping out of a black car with tinted windows. Larrabeiti wandered around the square, hand-in-hand with his sister, until the owner of a merry-go-round ride spotted them. He invited them to sit on the ride, expecting some panicked parents to appear, looking for their lost children. But nobody came, so he called the local police.

No one could understand how the two children, whose accents marked them as foreign, had got here. It was as if they had dropped from the sky. Anatole was too young to make sense of what had happened. How does a four-year-old who finds himself in Chile explain that he does not know where he is, that he lives in Argentina, but is really Uruguayan? All he knew was that he was in a strange place, where people spoke his language in a different way.

The next day, the children were taken to an orphanage, and from there they were sent on to separate foster homes. After a few months, they had a stroke of luck. A dental surgeon and his wife wanted to adopt, and when the magistrate in charge of the children asked the surgeon which sibling he wanted, he said both. “He said that we had to come together, because we were brother and sister,” Larrabeiti told me when we met earlier this year in Chile’s capital, Santiago.

Today, he is a trim, smartly suited 47-year-old public prosecutor with hazel eyes and a shaven head. “I have decided to live without hate,” he said. “But I want people to know.”

What Larrabeiti wants people to know is that his family were victims of one of the 20th century’s most sinister international state terror networks. It was called Operation Condor, after the broad-winged vulture that soars above the Andes, and it joined eight South American military dictatorships – Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador – into a single network that covered four-fifths of the continent.

It has taken decades to fully expose this system, which enabled governments to send death squads on to each other’s territory to kidnap, murder and torture enemies – real or suspected – among their emigrant and exile communities. Condor effectively integrated and expanded the state terror unleashed across South America during the cold war, after successive rightwing military coups, often encouraged by the US, erased democracy across the continent. Condor was the most complex and sophisticated element of a broad phenomenon in which tens of thousands of people across South America were murdered or disappeared by military governments in the 1970s and 80s.

Most Condor victims disappeared for ever. Hundreds were secretly disposed of – some of them tossed into the sea from planes or helicopters after being tied up, shackled to concrete blocks or drugged so that they could barely move. Larrabeiti’s mother, Victoria, who was last seen in an Argentinian torture centre in 1976, is one of them. His father, Mario, who was a leftwing militant, probably died in the shootout when they were snatched by the police. Enough victims have survived, however, to tell stories that, when matched against a growing volume of declassified documents, amount to a single, ghastly tale.

In the past two decades, Larrabeiti’s story has been told and retold in half a dozen courts and tribunals around the world. In the absence of a fully formed global criminal justice system, the perpetrators of Condor are being taken to court through a piecemeal process. “The trouble with borders is that it is easier to cross them to kill someone than it is to pursue a crime,” says Carlos Castresana, a prosecutor who has pursued Condor cases and the dictators behind them in Spain. Those seeking justice have had to rely on a judicial spider’s web of national laws, international treaties and rulings by human rights tribunals. The individuals they pursue are often decrepit and unrepentant old men, but a tenacious network of survivors, lawyers, investigators and academics, rather like the postwar Nazi-hunters, has taken up the challenge of ensuring that such international state terror does not go untried.

The process is painfully slow. The first major criminal investigation focusing on Condor – with victims and defendants from seven countries – began in Rome more than 20 years ago. It still has not ended. On a sweltering day in July 2019, a judge in the Rome case handed life sentences to a former president of Peru, a Uruguayan foreign minister, a Chilean military intelligence chief and 21 others for their role in a coordinated campaign of extermination and torture. The defendants are appealing, and a final verdict is due within a year.

Much of what we now know about Condor has been unearthed or pieced together in Rome, Buenos Aires and in dozens of court cases – large and small – in other countries. Further evidence comes from US intelligence papers dealing with Argentina that were declassified on the orders of Barack Obama. In 2019, the US completed its handover of 47,000 pages to Argentina. These documents show how much the US and European governments knew about what was happening across South America, and how little they cared.


When he was seven, Anatole Larrabeiti discovered his true identity, thanks to his tenacious paternal grandmother, Angélica, who tracked the siblings down. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. America’s intense love of and admiration for military dictatorships is puzzling, given the dissonance with America’s own ideals. Is it like those infatuations that good girls have for bad boys? I dunno.

Written by Leisureguy

5 September 2020 at 10:38 am

The US puts imprisons a much higher proportion of its citizens than any other country. Here’s what their life is like.

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In September 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. – Wikipedia

Country Prison
population
Population
per 100,000
US 2,193,798 737
China 1,548,498 118
Russia 874,161 615
Brazil 371,482 193

Following is a list from Wikipedia of  the worst countries in the world based on the proportion of their citizens they imprison. The US is comfortably in the lead. The list is much longer — these are just the worst. Canada is #142, at 107/100K. Some others:

Japan #207 (39/100K)
Finland #195 (53/100K)
Norway #190 (60/100K)
Sweden & Netherlands (tie) #189 (61/100K)
Germany #171 (77/100K)
United Kingdom: Scotland #106 (149/100K)
United Kingdom: England & Wales #111 (140/100K)
Australia #98 (170/100K)

United States: We’re No. 1!! 655/100K

Written by Leisureguy

13 March 2020 at 4:30 pm

The US criminal-justice system: Flawed and dangerous to citizens

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Pamela Colloff and Katie Zavadski report in ProPublica:

Imagine being arrested for a crime you did not commit.

You are taken to jail, where you wait to stand trial.

You eventually get your day in court, but before you can present your case, prosecutors call a witness who has a damning story to tell.

It’s a fellow inmate from the jail who claims he heard you confess to committing the crime.

Each man featured here was wrongly convicted, in part, on the word of a jailhouse informant. Each served years, even decades in prison. And in each case, the information the snitch gave eventually proved false.

Nine of the men pictured here were condemned to what amounted to a life sentence. One man was sentenced to death.

Their cases afford a rare opportunity not only to see the human cost of jailhouse informant testimony that is false or concocted, but to see how widespread prosecutors’ reliance on these witnesses is. These exonerees hail from all across the country: from California to Kentucky, Illinois to Pennsylvania. They come from big cities and small towns. They are black, white and Latino. Their cases span four decades — dating back as far as 1982, and ending in an exoneration as recently as last year.

Despite these cases, and a spate of other wrongful convictions that have come to light in recent years, jailhouse informant testimony remains an entrenched part of criminal prosecutions around the country and one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.

“Jailhouse informants comprise the most deceitful and deceptive group of witnesses known to frequent the courts,” concluded a high-profile 2001 judicial inquiry into the wrongful conviction of a Canadian man named Thomas Sophonow. “Usually their presence as witnesses signals the end of any hope of providing a fair trial.”

Their unreliability is rooted in a curious fact of the criminal justice system: The state is allowed to offer extraordinary benefits to people behind bars if they offer testimony that is favorable to the state’s case. These rewards may include reduced sentences, the dismissal of charges and even cash payments. Or the rewards may be far more modest. In one case featured below, a jailhouse snitch said he received just $25 and a pack of cigarettes for offering false information.

Because benefits are often conferred after a case goes to trial, prosecutors can assure jurors that no promises have been made. As ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine reported in December, Florida prosecutors repeatedly used a prolific jailhouse informant to help secure convictions, and even death sentences. Prosecutors told jurors they had not promised him anything in return, then gave him break after break after he testified, allowing him to be released from jail and to do more harm.

Rarely is anyone held to account when a jailhouse informant’s testimony later proves to be false. In Orange County, California, where an ongoing jailhouse snitch scandal has implicated top prosecutors and law ​enforcement officials — and tainted at least 140 cases, according to a pending lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union — no one has yet been prosecuted or disciplined for misconduct.

I spoke to the exonerees below about the experience of having their lives destroyed by a system that incentivizes jailhouse informants to lie. Many of these wrongfully convicted men lay the blame not on the informants themselves, but on the prosecutors and detectives who continue to rely on snitch testimony to make their cases, sending potentially innocent men and women to prison. . .

Continue reading for the exonerees’ experience.

Written by Leisureguy

11 March 2020 at 12:54 pm

Alabama: A state to avoid

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Elizabeth Flock writes in the New Yorker:

In the January 20, 2020, issue of The New Yorker, I wrote about Brittany Smith, a woman from Stevenson, Alabama, who, in January, 2018, shot and killed a man who she said had raped her, threatened her life in her home, and then attacked her brother after he arrived to help. The man, Todd Smith, who had recently sold Brittany a puppy, had been drinking, and had taken large amounts of methamphetamine. Yet within forty-eight hours of the shooting, Brittany was charged with murder. She went on to spend about four months in jail and six months in a mental institution, despite early attention to her case from the criminal-justice publication the Appeal. On January 14th and 15th, after my piece was published, Brittany finally had a Stand Your Ground hearing. Stand Your Ground is a statute that makes it legal to use lethal force to defend oneself against threats or perceived threats, with no duty to retreat. If Brittany won the hearing, she’d receive immunity from further prosecution. On Monday, she lost that hearing. She faces life in prison.

In a nineteen-page ruling, Judge Jenifer Holt wrote that Brittany’s use of deadly force was not demonstrably justified because she doubted that Brittany had reason to believe that Todd was about to use deadly physical force, assault, burglary, rape, or sodomy when she shot him. The judge wrote this despite the fact that Todd had already assaulted Brittany—a rape-kit evaluation found thirty-three wounds on her body—and despite the fact that Brittany said Todd had been choking her brother when she fired the gun.

Speaking from her home, in Stevenson, on Monday, Brittany told me that she was distressed but trying to remain hopeful. “I was prepared for a no, but I just feel like I’m not gonna get a fair trial here,” she said, and began to cry. “She saw the pictures of me; he almost beat me to death, he did rape me, and he tried to kill my brother, so how can she say this?”

The Stand Your Ground hearing, which was held in the Jackson County Courthouse in Scottsboro, Alabama—a county with more than double the state average of aggravated assaults per capita—began with testimony from Jeanine Suermann, a sexual-assault nurse examiner who saw Brittany the morning after the shooting. Suermann testified that Brittany’s wounds were consistent with having been bitten, strangled with two hands around her neck, and assaulted with “a lot of force.” The nurse listed bruises to Brittany’s neck, breasts, arms, legs, and head, and spoke repeatedly about the petechiae—discolored patches that can indicate the use of extreme pressure—that dotted Brittany’s hairline and neck. “She was probably hit multiple times and held down,” Suermann said. She testified that, during the examination, Brittany had described waking up “with no clothes in a puddle of urine” after having tried to fight back. “Scratched him everywhere I could,” Brittany told Suermann. “He was going to kill me.” At the conclusion of Suermann’s testimony, which lasted for more than two hours and included dozens of photographs of Brittany’s injuries, Jeff Poe, Todd’s cousin, left the courthouse with tears in his eyes. Poe had told me that, after Todd’s death, he’d considered having Brittany killed. But, after listening to the nurse’s testimony, Poe messaged me asking me to convey his apologies to Brittany and her family “for all this mess they have been through.” “It put me in a sick state of mind listening to all that today,” he wrote. “I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart.”

Yet Jason Pierce, the Jackson County District Attorney, attempted throughout the two-day hearing to cast doubt on whether Brittany had actually been raped, because there was no definitive sample of Todd’s semen, which the nurse examiner said is common in sexual-assault cases. The judge cited this detail in her decision, saying that she did not believe the evidence was consistent with a sexual assault. She also cited a 911 call in which Brittany said that she had not been raped; Brittany told me that she had been ashamed to admit it. In the hearing, Pierce questioned whether Brittany had truly feared for her life. At one point, the District Attorney noted that Todd had not had a gun or a knife on him. “But he had his hands. His penis. His mouth,” Brittany replied at the hearing, with controlled frustration. “You saw the thirty-three wounds on my body.”

Brittany and her brother, Chris McCallie, originally told police that McCallie had shot Todd; both believed that a woman would not get a fair trial in Jackson County, a place where advocates say that women’s complaints of violence are often ignored by police. In her ruling, the judge wrote that her decision was influenced by the fact that Brittany had given “inconsistent accounts of the events surrounding Todd’s death.” But Chris argued that, if law enforcement had known that it was Brittany who fired the gun, she would not have been taken for a rape-kit examination until it was too late. Even in court, with the exam’s findings and the photos of Brittany’s injuries splashed across a TV screen, it was clear that documentation of the violence wasn’t enough.

The court also had the opportunity to see a note that Brittany had frantically slipped to a gas-station worker the night of the assault. The employee testified that Brittany came in “very nervous and edgy,” with a reddened neck and a broken nail, wrote down the name “Todd Smith,” and said that he’d raped and beaten her and was holding her hostage. In her ruling, the judge argued that Brittany had had multiple opportunities to call law enforcement for help. But the employee said that Brittany was afraid to call the police, because Todd had said that he would retaliate if she did. McCallie arrived at Brittany’s house not long after, with his .22-calibre revolver. He said that Todd got him in a headlock and would not let go. Brittany said that Todd threatened to kill them both, and so she fired three shots at him. She said that she kept shooting after the first shot because “nothing happened.” A scientist at the Alabama Department of Forensic Services gave credence to this account, testifying that Todd had been on an “extremely high” amount of methamphetamine, which could cause someone to appear unaffected by blows or strikes.

Throughout the hearing, Brittany often sat silently with her eyes closed. She wore her hair tied in a single side braid, “like Katniss,” she told me, referring to the spiky protagonist of “The Hunger Games.” Before entering the courtroom on the second day, January 15th, Brittany read aloud to me from a book of daily wisdom inspired by collected Bible verses. “You are surrounded by a sea of problems,” the entry for that day read. “The future is a phantom, seeking to spook you.” She vowed not to be spooked. On the stand that day, Brittany tried to tell the court that if she did not remember every detail it was in part because she had learned that memory loss was a symptom of P.T.S.D. The nurse had testified that the trauma of sexual assault could last “for years.” But, when Brittany attempted to explain its effects on her, Pierce interrupted, objecting to her comments as “offhand.”

Brittany’s defense also attempted to call witnesses to testify about Todd’s violent history, which included some eighty arrests, at least half a dozen of which were for domestic violence, against multiple women. (Todd’s ex-wife, Paige Parker, told a radio host in 2019 that she was “beaten and raped and sodomized for years” by Todd in the early two-thousands, before she got an order of protection.) But this, too, was unsuccessful. One of the witnesses, a woman who had worked as a dispatcher for the Stevenson Police Department, testified that, in 2009, Todd had shoved her against a desk in her office and tried to tear off her shirt. “If someone hadn’t come in, I believe it would have gotten pretty bad,” she said. A second witness, a man who grew up with Todd, began to tell the court of the bruises he’d seen on women he believed Todd had hit, before Pierce, the D.A., cut him off. When it was Pierce’s turn to question him, he asked the man, “What’s your necklace?” The man replied, “I’m into witchcraft,” and then paused, flustered. “I don’t see how that’s relevant, my religion.” The D.A. had no further questions. Both testimonies were ultimately thrown out, after Pierce argued that bad-character evidence was not admissible.

In his closing argument, Brittany’s lawyer, Ron Smith, asserted that Brittany’s actions were clear self-defense. “She believed Todd Smith was going to cause serious injury to herself or her brother,” her lawyer said. “He was told to leave. He did not leave. He unlawfully remained.” In Alabama, he contended, unlawfully remaining is the very definition of burglary. If sexual assault would not convince the judge that Todd had been a threat, it seemed, perhaps an argument of burglary would. It did not.

With Brittany’s Stand Your Ground hearing denied, her lawyers will file what is called a writ of mandamus to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, a long-shot request to the court to order the judge to reverse her decision. If they lose that, they can request the same order from the Alabama Supreme Court. If she loses both, Brittany will go to trial, likely back in Jackson County, before the same judge. Only a handful of women in Alabama have ever won Stand Your Ground immunity, and women with convincing self-defense claims continue to lose. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

5 February 2020 at 6:45 pm

Institutionalized torture in the US: Solitary confinement

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Michael Barajas writes in Texas Observer:

I.
“I find myself every day searching for things I’ve lost.”
Roger Uvalle, held in solitary confinement for the past 26 years by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Three years ago, guards came to Roger Uvalle’s cell to tell him he was “catching chain”—being shackled and transferred to another prison. As the guards escorted him to the chain bus with about 60 other inmates, Uvalle began trembling, overcome by anxiety. He turned so pale another prisoner told him he looked like a ghost. He didn’t relax until guards put him in his new solitary confinement cell, a 6-by-10-foot space where he’d spend 22 to 24 hours each day, alone, just as he had every day for the past two-plus decades.

Years of almost no human contact have warped Uvalle’s sense of time. Weeks, months, even years blend together. He says his memory has degraded to the point where he now struggles to keep track of the few personal items he’s allowed to have. He sometimes spends hours turning over his cell looking for stamps, letters, art supplies.

His recollection of the time before 1992, when he went to prison for two armed robberies, is hazy. He knows he spent time in state hospitals; that his family struggled to find him mental health care growing up in San Antonio; and that as a teenager, he once tried to kill himself by swallowing a bottle of Valium. He knows that he was self-medicating on a cocktail of booze and whatever drugs he could find at the time. He knows that when he first went to prison, he was housed with the rest of the general inmate population and received mental health treatment, which he says helped.

And he knows that about 12 months into his 40-year sentence, guards sent him to solitary confinement after they accused him of being involved in back-to-back fights and hiding a makeshift knife in his cell. Two years later, while he was still in isolation, guards accused him of being affiliated with the Mexican Mafia prison gang, a scarlet letter officials use to justify keeping people in solitary.

About five years in, Uvalle says, he stopped getting medication for his mental illness, started hallucinating, and then struggled to keep himself and his cell clean. “I couldn’t care for myself and didn’t care about much and was experiencing psychotic behavior on a regular basis,” he wrote in a letter to me. When I visited him in prison recently, he talked about his most recent hunger strike, his third in the past two years. He had refused food for seven days before giving up this time. “Most of the time, they don’t acknowledge your hunger strike if you don’t have outside help,” Uvalle says. “They’ll let you die right there. They don’t care.” It reminds me of a line from one of the letters he sent me before our visit, when he described how some inmates set fires in protest. “There’s fires literally every day,” he wrote. “Never been in a place where there are fires every day.”

During our conversation, Uvalle seems shaken to be speaking with a stranger. His slow, soft speech hardly carries through the buzzy closed-circuit phone that connects us through the cracked plexiglass pane. He tells me he’s worried he’s getting worse. He’s struggling again to keep himself and his cell clean. He cries randomly sometimes, but doesn’t know why.

Uvalle went into solitary confinement in 1993, when he was 21 years old. Now, at 47, he’s been in solitary for 26 years—more than half his life.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has one of the country’s largest inmate populations in solitary confinement. This is due, in part, to the sheer size of the Texas prison system, the largest of any state. At last count, TDCJ held more than 4,400 of its 145,000 prisoners in “restrictive housing,” a euphemism for solitary, where inmates live isolated in a small cell for at least 22 hours every day.

Texas also holds more prisoners in long-term solitary confinement than every other state and the federal prison system combined, according to a report by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale University. At last count, according to TDCJ, about 1,300 Texas prisoners had been in isolation for six years or longer. More than 680 had been in solitary between six and 10 years, 450 between 10 and 20 years, and 129 between 20 and 30 years. Eighteen Texas prisoners have been in solitary for more than 30 years—living in isolation since at least 1990, when George H.W. Bush was still president.

Activists, families of inmates, and formerly incarcerated people call solitary one of the most damaging and dehumanizing practices that has endured in an opaque prison system. For years, they have pointed to the effects of solitary—delusional thinking, violent outbursts, hallucinations, and, in some cases, suicide—when asking state lawmakers to create an independent body to monitor the state’s prisons. They say independent oversight, a solution implemented when Texas’ juvenile lockups came under scrutiny more than a decade ago, could help administrators, politicians, and the public flag problems before they mushroom into tragedies.

Despite several months of requests, TDCJ did not let the Observer view any of its isolation units or provide any photographs of its cells. Aaron Striz, a prisoner who has spent nearly two decades in solitary confinement in Texas prisons, mailed several sketches documenting the conditions inside. AARON STRIZ

Long-term solitary continues because of the courts’ hands-off approach to prisons, with judges and inmates hamstrung by a 1996 law that makes it more difficult to challenge conditions in lockup. Reforms have proved difficult at the state level, in part because the Legislature seems unaware of what’s really happening behind bars. At a 2019 legislative committee hearing, an expert testified about the effects of long-term solitary confinement and said prisoners are sometimes held for decades in isolation; lawmakers were floored at her statement and questioned whether Texas inmates really spend that long in solitary.

Jeremy Desel, a spokesperson for TDCJ, calls Texas a “leader” when it comes to reducing solitary. According to the agency, the total number of prisoners in isolation has dropped from more than 9,000 about a decade ago to around 4,400 this year.

Over the past decade, TDCJ has implemented several programs aimed at moving people out of isolation, part of a national shift away from solitary. The change is driven by a growing consensus among mental health experts and corrections officials that solitary is not only expensive ($61.63 a day per person versus $42.46 in the general prison population), but also harmful for inmates, staff, and the communities that people damaged by isolation return to. But as the Texas Tribune reported last year, some of TDCJ’s new programs may actually mask the extent to which the state has reformed its solitary confinement practices. Inmates moved out of solitary and into a mental health diversion program still live in conditions that seem indistinguishable from solitary; prisoners continue to be confined in small spaces and have limited time outside their cells. Regardless of these similarities, Texas doesn’t count its participants as being in isolated housing. (Desel didn’t respond to a long list of questions about the agency’s use of solitary confinement.)

TDCJ also tracks very little about the effects of this extreme practice. After recent reports of isolated prisoners killing themselves or being killed by guards, I asked the agency how often inmates in solitary attempt suicide or get beaten and tear-gassed by officers. The agency could not provide those numbers.

For months, I’ve exchanged letters with more than a dozen prisoners in long-term isolation, trying to understand the effects of this controversial punishment that a growing consensus of medical and mental health professionals equates to torture. Many of these prisoners aren’t sure how—or, in some cases, if—they will ever get out of solitary.

They wrote about paltry to nonexistent mental health care in an environment proven to cause psychological distress. They told me that sick, elderly, or otherwise vulnerable inmates often languish in isolation. Their letters detailed hallucinations and delusional thoughts that test their grip on reality. Sometimes they get lucky and wind up next to people who look out for one another. Sometimes they’re housed next to inmates who throw feces, mutilate themselves, or get gassed by guards. They all say the noise is inescapable. “You hear others talking 24/7,” wrote Dennis Hope, 51, who’s been kept in solitary for more than two decades. “Sometimes they are hollering, arguing, singing, or screaming like they are on fire.”

II.
“They’ve known that ad seg drives people crazy since the 1800s. I can tell you all kinds of stories of those I’ve seen come back here normal and slowly go crazy.”
—Pedro Hernandez, held in solitary for nine years

Solitary confinement is a uniquely American form of punishment.

It began as a misguided attempt at rehabilitation. America’s first prisons, built in the 1800s, housed inmates in near total isolation based on a Quaker belief that solitude fostered penitence and reformation—hence the word “penitentiary.” In reality, foreign attachés dispatched to study American prisons in 1831 were horrified after witnessing a degree of isolation “beyond the strength of man.” Charles Dickens was revolted by what he saw while touring an American penitentiary in 1842, writing, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a prisoner who challenged his placement in solitary for 45 days, stating that inmates subjected to even brief isolation tended to slip into a “semi-fatuous condition” or became violently and irreversibly insane.

By the turn of the century, solitary had mostly gone out of style as a core correctional model in America. But in Texas, as convict leasing and prison farms replaced slavery as the primary tool for black oppression after the Civil War, solitary was still reserved as a severe punishment. Inmates on Texas’ prison plantations were locked in pitch-dark boxes, sometimes for so long or in such great numbers that they suffocated to death. In 1947, Oscar Byron Ellis, who had operated a money-making penal farm in Tennessee, took over the Texas prison system and built a new “segregation unit” in Huntsville to quarantine “hopeless cases.” Under Ellis, the authoritarian control Texas exerted over its prisoners became the model other states tried to emulate. Penologists drooled over what they called the “Texas Control Model.”

Texas’ approach to maintaining order inside its prisons at the time also relied on another method of control. As Texas’ inmate count grew throughout the century, the state squeezed profits out of its prison farms by empowering certain inmate enforcers to keep order rather than hiring more guards. Dubbed “building tenders,” these prisoners became part of a secret but brutal system of extortion, violence, and rape that lawmakers ignored for decades. The violence at the heart of the system came into full view in 1972 due to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” – Mahatma Gandhi

What’s the true measure of the US?

Written by Leisureguy

23 January 2020 at 5:46 pm

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