Warning: viewer discretion advised as this post contains deeply disturbing content.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and voted for by the United States, sets out three human rights that are crucially significant to this post. Article 5 states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; article 9 states that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention; article 11 notes that everyone has the right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. In the case of Abu Ghraib, an American run prison in Iraq, all three of these articles were systematically violated.
In April 2004, photographs taken by soldiers and military personnel working in the prison began to emerge, evidencing the brutality and inhumanity of the treatment of detainees. Following the attacks on September 11th 2001, the US became determined to win the so-called “war on terror”, so much so that they rendered international law on the use of torture “obsolete” and began attempting to re-write the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Whilst the US administration maintained the position that the abuse was the result of a few “bad apples”, there was evidence to suggest that the abuse was in fact systematic, for example with reports of official approval of the torture of one detainee, through his submergence in water until the point where he believed he would drown. However, it is still unclear the extent to which the methods applied were formally approved, and how much they were simply informally encouraged.
Whilst there has been international outrage over the treatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib, many reports still lack the personal stories of the victims; this could be due to the harrowing nature of accounts from ex-detainees, an understandable avoidance or lack of knowing quite how to write such atrocious words. But that is something which I would like to attempt now. To remind everyone that these were and still are real people, who are still affected every day by their experiences inside the prison. I will use the accounts of two men, Haj Ali, a community leader detained for 3 months, and Abu Mann, detained for 11 months.
Abu Mann. When Abu Mann heard the helicopters above his house one night, he knew that the Americans had come to detain him. He woke his wife and children and told them to stay calm, but that he was going to have to go with the Americans. This was when his torture began. His children were tied up, one son so tightly around the neck that he began to choke, in order to keep him quiet, the soldiers punched the boy. His wife, Nadal, 6 months pregnant at the time began to shake with fear, and started bleeding heavily – the following morning she found out that she had miscarried. When he arrived at the prison, Mann did not receive a Red Cross number, a breach of the Geneva Convention, which left him in a situation known as “deferred death”, a form of psychological torture in which prisoners believe that they will soon be executed. In statements, Abu Mann talks of how he still experiences regular nightmares, and how he cannot forget the faces of his torturers. When he sees the pictures that were taken of him, he still experiences extreme feelings of shame and disgust, despite knowing that he was forced into doing the things depicted in the photographs.
Haj Ali. Haj Ali’s accounts include much more graphic imagery of the physical abuse that he experienced at the hands of the Americans. During his first four days at Abu Ghraib, Ali was deprived of food and water, beaten and sexually assaulted with a rifle. He talks of how anyone with an injury or handicap was deliberately exploited for it; he had injured his hand when a gun had backfired at a wedding he attended before his arrest – inside the prison he was instructed to place this hand on the floor, where a guard stood on it, twisting his boot, crushing Ali’s hand until he fainted. Despite all of this, Haj Ali states that it was the psychological torture – the blasting of music on repeat in his cell, the screams of women being raped every night – that had the biggest impact on him. In January 2004, without charge or apology, Haj Ali was hooded, put into the back of a truck, driven to a highway in Baghdad and pushed off.
The accounts of these two men are horrific and hard to read, however, they represent a tiny proportion of the large-scale abuse. The photographs that emerged from the prison, showed detainees stripped to their underwear and tied in compromising humiliating and uncomfortable positions; detainees naked, and either positioned in, or forced to partake in sexual acts; and perhaps most famously the “hooded man” forced to stand on a wooden box, electrical wires in his hands and a hood over his head, told that if he was to fall he would be electrocuted.
Whilst this inhumane and barbaric treatment is utterly unjustifiable regardless of guilt, an International Red Cross report estimated that up to 90% of those detained in Abu Ghraib were innocent, arrested accidentally.
This is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing accounts of the mistreatment of detainees in relatively modern-day prisons, however, the abuse is unfortunately not contained to Abu Ghraib but instead appears to have been commonplace in American prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the 2000s.