By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
At least three of the 660 prisoners cooped up at Guantánamo Bay from the U.S. war against the Taliban and al-Qaida are between the ages of 13 and 15, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Other sources report there are half a dozen such kids. They are reportedly being held separately from adults, as required by international law, but HRW protested to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that they shouldn't be imprisoned at all. However, a Pentagon spokesman said the kids are being held for the purpose of gaining military intelligence.
"They have no access to their families, to lawyers, and no idea of how long they will be there," said HRW's Jo Becker. "And for children, the passage of time is different. A few weeks can feel like months. They're being interrogated by the military, again without counsel or family present."
On Jan. 23, Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, assured reporters, "Secretary Rumsfeld has been in touch with the people who are in charge of Guantánamo, and he understands this. So, too, does the president. And the president is perfectly satisfied that the traditions of the United States, which are to treat people well, to treat people with dignity and to treat people humanely, are being kept at our base in Guantánamo." In response to a question about the children, Rumsfeld said on April 25 that they are "very, very dangerous," adding, "They may be juveniles, but they're not on a Little League team anywhere."
While the International Committee of the Red Cross has been allowed to visit the base, HRW says its attempts to see prisoners has been rebuffed by the Pentagon. HRW is studying reports that in addition to kids, civilians are being held there, and it believes that prisoners are mistreated, allowed out of their cells only twice per week.
The longer in confinement, the more likely it is the kids will just kill themselves. That's what happened in Australia's immigrant detention camps in January 2002, where Afghan refugees sewed their lips shut in protest, and one kid after another tried suicide rather than go on. Already at Guantánamo there have been as many as 25 suicide attempts within the overall prison population.
Last December, the U.S. ratified a UN treaty drawn up in 2000 that stipulates no one should be used in armed conflict till they reach the age of 18 and that countries that ratify the treaty have a responsibility to demobilize children and assist in their rehabilitation.
In Afghanistan, UNICEF runs a program to do just that. The Guantánamo kids could get the same sort of treatment, but instead, they are imprisoned incommunicado. "If they have committed offenses, they need to be charged and given access to counsel," said Becker. "They should not be indefinitely detained in these conditions."COALITION OF THE UNWILLING
Take Georgia, for instance. Among our most stalwart allies is this little country, Stalin's homeland, whose army is key to protecting oil-pipeline interests. Unfortunately, the Georgian army is starving. Hospitals are crammed with malnourished soldiers suffering from ulcers and other gastrointestinal disorders, reports the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Food consists of a bowl of oatmeal or some cabbage for breakfast, followed by a watery soup of breakfast leftovers at noon and more of that delicious oatmeal or cabbage at dinnertime. Meat, if it ever comes, is rotten. Most of the decent food sent to the army is instead diverted to markets where the drivers sell it and pocket the profit.
"I found myself thinking about food 24 hours a day," recalled former soldier Vakhtang Mosiashvili, who was discharged from military service five years ago. "Sometimes we managed to steal some butter or cheese from the company storeroom. This helped stave off hunger for a while, but thoughts about food kept on tormenting us."
The Georgian government insists the situation is getting better. Dodo Turkoshvili, head of the sanitation and epidemic control service of the defense ministry, told IWPR, "We are now more concerned with soldiers' health and what they eat. The food has really improved and diversified in the past two years. We haven't had a single case of mass food poisoning. Soldiers never complain about anything."
Then there's Uzbekistan. This weekend, its capital, Tashkent, will be hosting the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. This is a nation where a small group of human-rights activists have been protesting in front of government buildings. Elena Urlaeva, one of the leaders, was promptly arrested and taken to the police station, where the deputy chief promised to send her not to prison, but to a mental hospital. "You are wrong in the head," he told her.
This wasn't the first time Urlaeva was threatened with psychiatric prison. Twice before, she was flung into a locked ward and given a cocktail of drugs to help alleviate her supposed mental condition. "A return to the Soviet nut house as a way of dealing with dissidents," was the way the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan put it. She was released after international human-rights groups protested. On another occasion last year, she was sent to the mental hospital and endured 400 doses of drugs. After she got out, the local prosecutor sought a court order finding her mentally unsound, thus making it possible to lock her up forever. A panel of Uzbek judges found that Urlaeva was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and said she "represented a danger to herself and the people around her."