Sunday, January 30, 2005

GLOBAL JIHAD: A terrorising war

+ Because Abbasi is British and because public opinion in Britain is more strongly concerned with human rights than public opinion in America, he was released after 18 months. But at least 560 other prisoners — nationalities undisclosed — remain in US custody at Guantanamo Bay.US authorities will not reveal what evidence — if
any —exists against the other prisoners, most of whom can expect to spend the foreseeable future in their jail cells. +


30/01/2005

A terrorising war
Vir Sanghvi

FEROZ Abbasi was released last week after spending 18 months in the custody of the US authorities at Guantanamo Bay prison.

The US government had alleged that he was a member of al Qaeda and when he was finally released, it was because of pressure from Britain:Abbasi is British. He was flown back to Britain, to the custody of the Metropolitan Police. But British intelligence authorities say that he is unlikely to remain in custody for very long: There is no evidence that he represents any kind of security threat.

According to Abbasi's lawyer, he spent 18 months in isolation in a windowless cell. He was not allowed any human contact, not even with guards and was monitored by a TV camera at all times. He was repeatedly injected with an unknown substance that may have triggered psychosis. He has now had a mental breakdown, suffers from hallucinations and talks to himself.

Because Abbasi is British and because public opinion in Britain is more strongly concerned with human rights than public opinion in America, he was released after 18 months. But at least 560 other prisoners — nationalities undisclosed — remain in US custody at Guantanamo Bay.US authorities will not reveal what evidence — if any —exists against the other prisoners, most of whom can expect to spend the foreseeable future in their jail cells.

If you think that Britain's human rights record is better than America's, you are right. But 'better' is a relative term. Under British law, foreigners who are suspected of involvement in terrorist activity can be jailed indefinitely, not only without trial, but even without being charged.

Last month, Britain's Law Lords held that this law was discriminatory because it treated foreigners differently from British citizens. It will now be changed to allow the authorities to continue to hold all suspects without charge or trial except that they won't go to jail but will be subject to some kind of house arrest, the exact details of which have still to be worked out.

Under the new law, not only would those held in custody not know what the charges are (because there won't be any charges) but they will not even be told what the evidence against them is.

The only legal representation that suspects/prisoners will be entitled to, will take the form of special government-appointed advocates. Suchadvocates may see the evidence against the suspects but will not be allowed to discuss it with their clients.

You could well argue that as regrettable as this is, the war against terror has changed the rules. And traditional conceptions of civil liberties and human rights will have to be altered in the face of the al Qaeda threat. You could argue also — with some justification — that it is not always possible to secure convictions in cases that involve terrorism because witnesses are often too frightened to testify and that jurors face the threat of retribution from the terrorists.

None of these arguments would convince me that what America is doing at Guantanamo Bay is at all morally defensible (even if Abbasi is lying about quite how badly he was treated), but I would concede the general point: terrorism requires a different set of rules from ordinary crime.My question is: Would America or Britain have conceded this point five years ago?

For over a decade now, we have heard constant criticism from the West about how little respect the Indian security forces have for the human rights of suspects in such terror-prone areas as Kashmir.

Unlike most middle class Indians who believe that terrorist suspects have no human rights at all, I am actually quite concerned about the behaviour of our security forces in such states as Kashmir. I don't think any impartial observer can deny that there have been excesses.Nor can we deny that in the past the security forces have behaved badly in such areas as the North Eastern states.

But I have always been frustrated by the refusal of the West to recognise that any army or para-military force that is fighting a terrorist enemy cannot operate under the Geneva Convention or the rules of civilian law and order.Terrorism demands a swifter, harsher response and inevitably, someinnocent people will end up getting hurt in the cross-fire.

For years, the West refused to see our point. Then 9/11 happened and suddenly, America announced that it was changing all the old rules. It was as though terrorist attacks in other countries did not matter. But once the US mainland had been attacked, then human rights and civil liberties could be tossed out of the window.

The problem with this sudden turnaround is that America has over-reacted massively and behaved with a complete lack of sensitivity. Anybody with a Muslim surname who has passed through US immigration over the last couple of years will tell you about the hostility and suspicion with which he has been treated. Often, this hostility extends to anybody with a brown skin and sometimes to all foreigners.

Countries with some experience of coping with terrorism try their best to limit the damage. Take our own example. Though we shy away from saying this too openly, there is little doubt that the Kashmir militancy, which started out as an indigenous movement for 'azaadi', has now been hijacked by international Islamists who see it as one more jehad against the infidels.

When the Indian army fights Kashmiri militants, these militants are nearly always Muslims. When allegations of excesses are leveled, they nearly always emanate from Muslims.

And yet, one of the great achievements of the Indian state is that we have not allowed India's Muslims to see Kashmir in Hindu-Muslim terms. No matter what happens in Kashmir, India's Muslims recognise that the security forces are fighting militants, not Muslims.

Indian Muslims may be upset (with justification) about Gujarat. But very few identify with the jehadis in Kashmir or believe that the Indian army is targeting Muslims.

Sadly, this is not true of America or Britain. In Abbasi's case, much of the pressure for his release came from British Muslim organisations who believe that all Muslims are being unfairly targeted by Western security services.

When Abbasi was flown to England from Guantanamo Bay, the British authorities took the unprecedented step of placing an independent Muslim observer on board the plane so that Muslims could see that Abbasi was not mistreated on the flight.

And yet, Muslims are far from satisfied. Two weeks ago, new evidence of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by British forces surfaced and caused widespread outrage. Coupled with the notorious Abu Ghraib prison abuse by US forces, such evidence tends to confirm Muslim fears that the West is treating this as a war against Islam and that American and British soldiers see all Muslims as beneath contempt and without any dignity. It cannot be an accident, say British Muslim leaders, that every single prisoner at Guantanamo Bay is a Muslim and that the new anti-terror laws are aimed mainly at Muslim suspects.

All this makes one fear for the future of the so-called 'war against terror'. So far, its principal achievements have been regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq, while its failures include the inability to capture Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and much of the al-Qaeda leadership (the real targets of any war against terror) and the growing conviction among the world's Muslims that perhaps bin Laden is right when he says that America is the enemy of Islam.

The tragedy is that all this was avoidable. If the West had not been so self-righteous about human rights when other countries — such as India — were fighting terrorism, it would not have been at such a loss to respond to the terrorist attacks on itself when they did come.

It would not have been panicked into over-reacting so massively. And it could have learned from the experience of India and other veterans in the fight against terrorism that when you target an entire community or religion, then you needn't bother with the 'war against terror' — because then, the terrorists have already won.

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