TORONTO - Towards the end of the Soviet Union, I was the first western journalist (to the best of my knowledge) allowed into the world’s most dreaded prison, Moscow’s sinister Lubyanka. Muscovites dared not even utter the name of KGB’s headquarters, calling it instead after a nearby toy store, `Detsky Mir.’
I still shudder recalling Lubyanka’s underground cells, grim interrogation rooms, and even deeper underground execution cellars where tens of thousands were tortured and shot. I sat at the very desk from which monsters who ran Cheka (Soviet secret police) – Dzerzhinsky, Yagoda, Yezhov, Beria - ordered 30 million victims to their deaths. This industrial murder, we should recall, occurred at least five years before Hitler’s death camps went into production, and was well known to Churchill and Roosevelt when they allied themselves to mass murderer Josef Stalin.
Prisoners taken in the dead of night to Lubyanka were systematically beaten for days with rubber hoses and clubs. There were special cold rooms were prisoners could be frozen to near death. Sleep deprivation was a favorite and most effective Cheka technique. So was near-drowning in water fouled with urine and feces.
I recall these past horrors because of what this column has long called the gradual `Sovietization’ of the United States. This shameful week, it became clear Canada is also afflicted.
We have seen America’s president and vice president, sworn to uphold the Constitution, advocating exactly the same tortures techniques KGB used at the Lubyanka. They claimed beating, freezing, sleep deprivation and drowning were necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, calling them by the euphemism, `tough interrogation’. Stalin made the same arguments, but did not stoop to euphemisms. .
The White House insisted that anyone charged with vague `terrorism offenses’ – including Americans - could be kidnapped, tortured, and tried in camera using `evidence’ obtained by torturing other suspects. Bush & Co reject the basic law of habeaus corpus and US laws against torture. The UN says Bush’s torture plans violate international law and the Geneva Conventions. These conventions were enacted to provide basic protection to combatants and civilians in wartime, and regulate the behavior of occupying powers.
The White House claimed the Geneva Conventions, the core of international law, are `outdated ‘ and did not apply to so-called `terrorism suspects.’ The Bush Administration was particularly unhappy over the Geneva Convention’s law that it is illegal for an occupying power invading another nation to set up a government there under military occupation, such as the US did in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On a side note, Switzerland, guardian of the Conventions, broke its usual discreet silence recently to accuse Israel of grossly violating the Geneva Conventions by brutally mistreating the Palestinian people.
Bush’s attempts to re-write the Geneva Conventions, which were signed by 162 nations, met serious protests from many other nations and four senior Republican Senators.
This week’s tentative and still cloudy agreement between Bush and Congress to may somewhat limit torture, but appears to exempts US officials from having to observe the Geneva Convention and be given immunity to any criminal acts they commit that violate the conventions.
Canadians had a shocking view of similar creeping totalitarianism as the full horror of Maher Arar’s persecution was revealed. Thanks to false information from RCMP, the US arrested a perfectly innocent Canadian citizen transiting through a New York airport, sent him to Syria to be tortured, and subsequently denied this crime until it was exposed. Arab states and Pakistan are routinely used by the Bush Administration for outsourced torture. Syria denies the charges.
Suspects were routinely kidnapped by the US, often on the basis of faulty information or lies elicited under torture, then sent to Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Morocco and Pakistan to be tortured until they confessed. The objective of this `rendition’ program: torture as many suspects as possible in hopes of finding a few kernels of useful information. The Cheka and East Germany’s Stasi used the same practice.
I never thought to see the United States - champion of human rights and rule of law - legislating torture and Soviet-style kangaroo tribunals. I never thought I’d see Congress and a majority of Americans supporting such police state measures. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln must be turning in their graves.
The Bush Administration insists that its `tough interrogation techniques’ are really torture, and must be used on dangerous terrorist suspects. They cite the old Israeli argument for torture, `what if you had a suspect who knew where there was a huge, ticking bomb?’ That argument is specious. History shows torture is never confined to a few cases.
Once released from Pandora’ Box, torture becomes routine and ubiquitous among security agencies. Not only are single high-interest suspects tortured, their relatives, friends and associates are also tortured in case they know something, or to corroborate interrogation information. Anyone these people know or talked to also fall under suspicion and into the torturer’s ever-widening ambit.
Canada has always seemed to me been a haven of moderation, decency, and rule of law that managed to stay aloof from the world’s travails. That is, until the Maher Arar affair shockingly showed it could also quickly fall into police state behavior.
Arar’s despicable treatment by Canada and the US was the result of a US witch hunt, plus anti-Muslim racism, stupidity, bureaucratic cowardice and incompetence. Disturbingly, before becoming prime minister, conservative leader Stephen Harper actually branded Arar a terrorist, and backed his arrest and imprisonment.
We saw Ottawa aiding the outrageous persecution of its citizens, and the US shamefully refusing to aid the Canadian government’s official Arar inquiry, which was followed with intense interest and concern by most Canadians.
Former US Attorney General John Ashcroft, who authorized Arar’s arrest, should face justice for this and many other malfeasances. He was the chief witch hunter who had over 3,000 innocent Muslims arrested, threatened and interrogated. None were found guilty of any terrorism charges. The current US Attorney General , who actually denied the Bush Administration was responsible for Arar’s abduction and torture, should be ashamed of himself. He also happens to be the author of many of the government’s legal briefs justifying torture.
Canada must demand a thorough US investigation, apology, and guarantee Canadians will never again become victims of the state-run criminal activity that afflicted Maher Arar. Canada’s PM Harper should advise his new best friends in Washington that Canada is not a banana republic.
Officials directly involved in the most sordid, disgraceful case in Canada’s modern history, must face justice. They are as much guilty as the torturers who beat Maher Arar mercilessly for ten months. The same applies to American officials who sent an innocent man to be nearly beaten to death and virtually buried alive in a `grave’ cell measuring six feet by three.