May 242008

IMAGINE this: a time bomb ticks menacingly. Thousands of innocent civilian lives are in imminent danger. The good news: the suspected terrorist mastermind is in police custody. The bad news: there isn’t much time left before the bomb detonates.

So the interrogators have no choice but to use every possible means to find the bomb in time. As they extract nail after nail from the sleep-deprived suspect’s fingers, he cracks open. Torture yields crucial intelligence and a major catastrophe is averted. Perfect, right?

Think twice. This deadly ticking time bomb scenario is the classic justification used by the Bush administration for the use of systematic torture in the war on radical Islam. Granted, the difficult trade-off between torture and human rights may on rare occasions be unavoidable. Torture might even lead terror suspects to provide timely intelligence that they otherwise would not. In fact, Team America (read the US and the UK) claims to have stopped several terrorist plots in the tracks by using coercive investigation techniques.

But the clear-cut choice presented in the ticking bomb scenario is simplistic and misleading. For one, mass terror plots rarely involve a single bomber. Second, there is no evidence on how many actual bombs have been defused under such conditions. Third, the crude ends-means logic of the whole concept unravels on close examination: for every terrorist tortured, many more innocent people are likely to get whacked to a pulp. Not to mention the psychological costs they might suffer. And torture is a slippery slope. Once a government decides that torture is justified à la the Bush administration, there is no limit to the dehumanising cruelty government agents can inflict on an alleged terrorist. Think Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.

The experience of US law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI, shows that critical information can be obtained from detainees by tortureless methods. The Bush administration and some of its allies obviously do not agree and see torture not as a crime but as a necessary evil. In their view, Osama bin Laden and his ilk do not have basic human rights because they do not respect the rights of those they kill and maim. If the terrorists commit heinous crimes, goes the logic, so must Team America.

The Guardian recently revealed that the British security service MI5 interrogated British terror suspects who were being tortured in a secret Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) detention centre in the heart of Rawalpindi. After MPs and human rights groups called for an investigation into the allegations levelled in the Guardian story, MI5 denied it had colluded in torture, claiming instead that its agents operate under strict guidelines when operating overseas and “do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment”. Unless of course that torture takes place in another country and those tortured are either locals or dual nationals so that Whitehall can take cover under the plea of non-jurisdiction.

Across the Atlantic, the Bush administration dissimulates torture as ‘that alternative set of procedures’. These procedures are not always usable at home because of the fear of democratic accountability. So the easy way out is to outsource torture to friendly countries like Mubarak’s Egypt or Musharraf’s Pakistan. Of course, such actions make a mockery of Washington’s avowed commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

Consider: speaking at the Air University in Montgomery, Alabama on April 14 this year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged that America “will greatly expand our support for the efforts of Pakistani civilians to strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law … Pakistan now will need to find a way to have very solid civilian control of the armed forces”.

Surely, Secretary Rice understands that using Pakistani intelligence operatives as mercenaries is unlikely to help establish civilian supremacy. In fact, the relative autonomy of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, especially the ISI, is largely the result of CIA patronage during the US-led covert anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. During this period their capacity for domestic surveillance and repression increased dramatically, as did their confidence and sense of impunity.

Since 9/11, these agencies have run amok under American auspices, illegally detaining and torturing hundreds of Pakistanis and foreigners in the name of combating terror. Some of those detained were reportedly involved in personal disputes with ISI officials. Many others were secular Baloch and Sindhi nationalists. Simply put, the Americans helped create a monster in Pakistan which they keep injecting with adrenaline even as it wildly stomps on our civil and political liberties.

The new government must take immediate action to end the illegal detentions and torture committed on Pakistani soil under the garb of anti-terrorism. Parliament should exercise its oversight function by calling the intelligence chiefs to account. Above all, we need a strong judiciary to rein in the agencies.

It was the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry which took them to task on the missing persons’ issue. To my knowledge, never before in our history had senior military intelligence officials been summoned to court and asked to explain why they were illegally detaining people. No wonder the then army chief of staff General Pervez Musharraf accused the Supreme Court of releasing terrorists to justify his illegal actions of Nov 3, 2007. He knew full well that it would be music to the ears of his benefactors on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is of little surprise that his dismissal and house arrest of the chief justice and other judges did not elicit even a squeak from Team America. Champion they might liberty, rights and justice but the Americans and their allies have lost all credibility by virtue of their blatant disregard for the rule of law in other countries. Yet they continue to chide others for crimes they themselves have no qualms about committing. It might be a good idea for them to step out of their glasshouse before throwing stones at others. n

The writer, a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, is conducting doctoral research in Pakistan.

Source: Daily Dawn, 24/5/2008

 Posted by at 1:47 pm

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