November 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of General Efrain Rios Montt launching the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s civil war after seizing power in a coup. The victims and their families are still waiting for justice. Thankfully, some of them are finally getting their day in court as Rios Montt stands accused in the Dos Erres Massacre of 1982.
In Turkey, it is not “publish or perish” that scholars must fear. It is prison.
There was a time, not very long ago, that Turkey seemed on the edge of a new era of academic and intellectual freedom. New private universities created institutional support for more independent scholarship, while the Turkish government showed at least grudging willingness to allow debate of formerly “taboo subjects.” For example, in 2005, the ruling AK (Justice and Development Party) Party, after initial hesitation, publicly supported the first conference in Turkey that seriously examined the Armenian Genocide. It soon became apparent, however, that the AK Party’s vision of academic freedom has clear limits.
Asserting Control over the Universities
In some cases, basic science came under attack. In Turkey, as in the United States, there is a powerful creationist movement eager to debunk fundamental aspects of evolutionary science. Creationism has deep roots in Turkey and the ruling AK Party has quietly picked up the banner of anti-science. Slowly, over the past several years, major scholarly institutions have lost their independence and party hacks have replaced serious researchers.
Nearly four years ago, on his second day in office, President Obama ordered the Guantanamo prison closed within one year. Today it remains open, with 166 detainees, and human rights violations in the name of “global war” have become the “new normal” there, at Bagram in Afghanistan and elsewhere, including indefinite detention, unfair trials, unlawful killings with drones and impunity for torture.
President Obama must make good on his promise to close the prison, and he must end–and ensure accountability for–human rights violations in the name of “global war.” Yes, there are obstacles to closure and reform–however, if President Obama were to change course and honor the U.S. government’s international human rights obligations, the path forward is clear, because human rights provide a framework that protect and ensure justice for all of us.
Here are 10 concrete steps–by no means exhaustive–President Obama can take now and in the near future to keep his promise and help make his rhetoric on human rights a reality:
1) Immediately recommit publicly to closing Guantanamo, recognize that international law applies to all U.S. counterterrorism operations, and recognize that the right way to close Guantanamo is to ensure that detainees are either charged and fairly prosecuted in federal court, or released to countries that will respect their human rights.
With relatively little attention from the international press, a quiet crisis is developing in Turkey, where hundreds of prisoners are engaged in mass hunger strikes. The strikes originated in mid-September, with initial demands centering on Kurdish language education and the on-going refusal of Turkish authorities to allow PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, to meet with his lawyers. Additional hunger strikes have sprung up in scores of prisons throughout the country, with demands diversifying as the strikes have spread and at least seven hundred men and women now participating. Because the hunger strikers are allowing themselves water fortified with salt, sugar and vitamins to prolong the strike, these protests are likely to be long, slow, and painful. The first strikers have already gone without food for nearly two months and doctors have indicated that some hunger strikers are nearing death. Outside the prisons, violent clashes between protestors and law enforcement officials continue.
Recent tensions along the Turkish – Syrian border have captured the world’s attention and sparked tough talk in Ankara. Turkey’s parliament has approved cross-border operations and the Turkish military has increased its presence on the border. Artillery fire across the border is a daily event and, after Turkey stopped and searched two flights bound for Syria, each country has banned the other from using its airspace. Yet, there is no war fever on Turkish streets. Part of the reason for this lays in longstanding Turkish traditions; an important strand of Republican popular memory highlights the “foreign entanglements” of the Ottoman Empire as a mistake not to be repeated. Just as important, however, are the ways in which the Syrian crisis is understood within the context of Turkish domestic politics and the on-going repression of activists and dissidents within the country.
Although Turkey has been touted as “a democratic model for the Middle East,” the reality is far more complicated. This, after all, is a country where expressing unpopular views can land you in jail. World renowned pianist, Fazıl Say, for example, is on trial for tweets deemed “insulting to religious values.” Poking fun at politicians can also land you in big trouble. Recently, a man was sentenced to more than a year in prison for making fun of the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül. Needless to say, there is no Turkish equivalent of the Daily Show. The Turkish record on press freedoms continues to be “bleak” according to a recent review by Marc Pierini for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, with many journalists in prison or on trial and a growing culture of self-censorship.
Yesterday The New York Times published a story with the headline “Election May Decide When Interrogation Amounts to Torture.” It compares and contrasts President Obama and Governor Romney on torture.
While there are a number of points in the article one could address—for example, the claim that techniques approved in the Army Field Manual are “nonabusive”—the bigger picture is this:
- U.S. torture was, and continues to be, about systemic institutional failures, including an over emphasis on domestic political values at the expense of international standards, and the failure to end impunity and lack of remedy for past abuses.
Today, Amnesty International issued a new report calling for an end to the use of prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons. The report contains shocking details about the scope and impact of abusive use of solitary confinement on prisoners, ex-prisoners, families and communities.
There is no policing of the system, they do whatever they want and they get away with it.
Sister of a man held in solitary confinement for a total of 21 years
Personally, I find it hard to imagine what it’s like to be held in solitary confinement for a couple days, let alone a couple decades. Medical doctors have described how, even after short periods of time, solitary can lead to insanity. I can see how after reading this Kafkaesque story about a prisoner who participated in a hunger strike to protest the use of solitary:
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These detainees must be immediately released to countries that will respect their human rights. If the Obama administration can’t find suitable and willing countries to take them right away, then these detainees should–if they are willing–be released in the United States.
On Wednesday, a U.S. judge ruled that a provision in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that authorizes indefinite detention is unconstitutional, and blocked the government from using the provision to hold people without charge.
The ruling is a major win for the movement to end indefinite detention, which for over 10 years has been a hallmark of the human rights vaccum at Guantánamo and was codified in U.S. law last year by President Obama and Congress. Shamefully, the Obama administration has appealed.
Why care about indefinite detention?
Imagine you were locked up, accused of—but never charged with—a crime, and denied a fair trial to make your case. Seem farfetched?
Adnan Latif died at Guantánamo on Saturday, after being held over 10 years without charge—despite a judge’s order that he be released.
Latif protested his treatment with a hunger strike and poetry; these lines were cleared by government censors and serve as a tragic reminder of the urgent need to end indefinite detention and close the prison:
“Hunger Strike Poem”
They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults
Where is the world to save us
Where is the world to save us
from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save
the hunger strikers?