Bagram's New Black Hole

Last week the BBC reported that it had interviewed nine Afghan detainees who claimed to have been held in a secret detention facility on Bagram Air Base where they suffered abuse at the hands of US personnel.

The detainees were held in a hitherto unidentified detention facility called “The Black Hole” by their American guards. Most of the detainees said they had been beaten at the time of their arrest – one was missing a row of teeth.

In the prison lights were kept on in the cells 24 hours a day and the constant hum machinery seemed designed to prevent detainees from sleeping. One detainee, Mirwais, claimed that he was made to dance by the guards every time he needed to use the bathroom.

There are several shocking aspects to this story. First, in all nine cases the abuse reportedly occurred after President Obama issued his Executive Order Ensuring Lawful Interrogations. The military denies the existence of the facility.

Second, it would appear that sleep deprivation is being used as deliberate tactic to soften up detainees in contravention of the Army Field Manual on Interrogations, which requires that detainees be allowed 4 hours sleeps in every 24 hour period.

Third, and perhaps most disturbing of all, is the complete lack of interest that the US media has taken in the story.  On the face of it the BBC report seems credible, meriting further investigation at the very least, but the silence has been deafening.

America seems to have lost its appetite for self-examination and, by refusing to investigate and punish the systemic use of torture by the Bush administration, President Obama has contributed to the culture of impunity that allows such abuses to flourish in the field.

The President made a commitment to run an anti-torture administration and now he has reached a moment of truth.  Apparently not everyone got the memo. He cannot turn the page on the BBC’s story. This is happening on his watch.

President Obama must order an immediate inquiry into these allegations. If offences have been committed criminal charges must follow.

The Commander-in-Chief sets the tone for the armed forces and actions speak louder than words. Only by acting decisively in the face of these new revelations can he make his repugnance at such tactics clear.

The Lindsay Lohan Chronicles

Lindsay Lohan in West Bengal. Copyright: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2010

Lindsay Lohan in West Bengal. Copyright: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2010

For you, the gentle reader, I plumb the depths of the internet looking for content to inform, entertain, and perhaps piss off the folks expecting to read about human rights.  Well, today I have to thank Lindsay Lohan for making this arduous task that much easier for me.  Yes, for some reason the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation chose the esteemed actress and socialite (is there such a thing as an esteemed socialite?) to do a documentary on child trafficking in India.

I’m actually serious– this is not an April Fool’s Day joke.  It is actually true.  Lindsay Lohan has done a documentary of child trafficking in India.  See the cringe-inducing one minute preview above.

Despite the possibly dodgy decision by the BBC to use Ms Lohan in this documentary, I wonder if it is a blessing in disguise.  People who are unfamiliar with child trafficking as a human rights issue, but are familiar with the work of Lindsay Lohan might be educated on the issue.

Child trafficking in India is  at epidemic levels despite efforts to combat it.  Many (upwards of 40%) of the children trafficked into India are from Nepal.  There is also cult-like group in the Indian state of Karnataka who worship the goddess Yellamma and send their children (initiated as devadasi) who are trafficked to other parts of India supposedly as part of their devotion to this goddess.  It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of girls are trafficked for prostitution.  Their lives are short and brutal, many suffer from sexually transmitted diseases.  In places like Mumbai, children as young as nine are sold at auctions reminiscent of slavery.  The testimony of Anita, a young Nepalese girl trapped in a life of prostitution is worth a read.  Maybe if even one of these girls benefit from Lindsay Lohan’s documentary, then perhaps it will be worth it.

Shia Muslims Still Face Inequality in Saudi Arabia

A new report by Human Rights Watch, entitled “Denied Dignity”, outlines how Shia Muslims of Saudi Arabia struggle against “systematic discrimination”.  The Shia community, which comprises about 10% to 15% of the Saudi population, faces “unfavourable treatment” in areas including religion, education, employment, and the justice system.

A recent Human Rights Watch report highlights an incident this past February where Shia Muslims clashed with religious police in the holy city of Medina. The report found that at this incident, “Security forces shot a 15-year-old pilgrim in the chest, and an unknown civilian stabbed a Shia religious sheikh in the back with a knife, shouting ‘Kill the rejectionist [Shia].’ This led to a number of demonstrations in the Eastern Province and to many protestors also being arrested.  Additionally, the report mentions how communal Shia prayer halls in the city of Khobar were closed in July of 2008 and how in 2009 many Shia religious and community leaders were arrested.

In the report’s press release, Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch said:

 All the Saudi Shia want is for their government to respect their identity and treat them equally. Yet Saudi authorities routinely treat these people with scorn and suspicion. 

While Human Rights Watch recognized some efforts toward religious tolerance made by King Abdullah the monarch of Saudi Arabia, they stated that “the discrimination by state institutions has not ended” and that domestically no progress has been made towards promoting or implementing religious tolerance. In the same press release Human Rights Watch also demanded that a commission be established for the equal sharing of holy places by all Muslims especially in the holy cities of Mekka and Medina.

The BBC and both Human Rights Watch cite religious differences to be main source of the tension and subsequent inequality between the religious groups.

At the end of the press release, Whitson called on the Saudi government to change its ways and honor the vows for religious tolerance that King Abdullah made in his speeches in Madrid and New York in 2008,

The Saudi government has long regarded its Shia citizens through the prism of Wahhabi dogma or state stability, branding them as unbelievers or suspecting their national loyalties. It is time for a new approach that treats Shia as citizens with equal rights.

Sana Javed contributed to this post.

Another Birthday in Prison

Saturday marks the 41st birthday of Chinese journalist and poet Shi Tao. It will be the fifth birthday he celebrates in prison. He is serving serving a 10-year prison term for sending an e-mail summarizing a memo advising journalists on how to handle the 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananman Square crackdown.

Chinese authorities have not lessened their restrictions on Internet freedom since Shi Tao was arrested on November 24, 2004. This was particularly apparent on the days immediately before and after June 4 of this year, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananman Square crackdown. The government blocked foreign news Web sites like CNN and the BBC and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook in anticipation of the day. Controls over other media outlets, including newspapers and magazines, have also intensified in recent years.

While prison conditions have improved slightly for Shi Tao in the past two years, freedom may still be as much as five years away. An appeal to review Shi Tao’s case was rejected last year. His mother’s request for medical parole for Shi Tao–because of a stomach condition that has worsened as a result of a poor prison diet–was also rejected. Don’t let Shi Tao spend any more birthdays in jail!

"Come on Auntie Beeb…Get on With It!

The BBC continues to draw sharp criticism for its refusal to air a charity event for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The famed UK station refused to air an emergency appeal put on by the Disaster Emergency Appeal (DEC) stating that it did not want to appear to be “backing one side over the other,” in the words of BBC director Mark Thompson. In a blog entry on the BBC site, Thompson wrote, “The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story.”

More than 50 MPs have written to the BBC urging it to reverse its decision and to air the fundraiser by DEC, an umbrella group that includes notable charities such as Oxfam, Save the Children, and the Red Cross. Criticism has also poured in celebrities such as Oscar nominee Samantha Morton who, according to the BBC, said “she was embarrassed to earn money from a corporation that would take such a ‘horrific’ and ‘disgusting’ decision.” Joining this chorus of criticism was Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York who recently said “Come on Auntie Beeb. Wake up and get on with it.”

Protests outside the BBC have been held and the BBC has recieved over 10,000 emails urging the BBC to air the program. Two prominent journalists unions in England called the decision “cowardly and in danger of being seen as politically motivated” and added “far from avoiding the compromise of the BBC’s impartiality, this move has breached those same BBC rules by showing a bias in favour of Israel at the expense of 1.5 million Palestinian civilians suffering an acute humanitarian crisis.”

The Guardian reports that “fury” is building at the BBC over this decision and quoted one annoymous BBC staffer as saying, “Feelings are running extremely high and there is widespread disgust at the BBC’s top management. There is widespread anger and frustration at the BBC’s refusal to allow people to speak out about it.”

Meanwhilte Sky News has come to the BBC’s defense and refused to air the charity appeal for Gaza as well. John Ryley, the head of Sky News, defended their decision, saying “That is why, after very careful consideration, we have concluded that broadcasting an appeal for Gaza at this time is incompatible with our role in providing balanced and objective reporting of this continuing situation to our audiences in the UK and around the world.”

The BBC’s decision is bound to disappoint the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the largest humanitarian actor in Gaza, who described the “huge and overwhelming need” for aid in Gaza. Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesman, said the estimated cost of “rehabilitation and repair” was $345m, with $230m unfunded. “We are massively underfunded, and I think the figures involve illustrate the sheer scale of the need involved here,” he said.

UPDATE: Click here to watch the video that the BBC and Sky News refused to show