Obama’s backsliding on torture

guardian.co.uk |

Not long ago, I marched across the gravel of Guantánamo Bay‘s Camp Echo with two overstuffed grocery sacks and tramped up the stairs of the hut where a prisoner sat, shackled and waiting. A guard swung open the grate. I went in, heaved the bags on the table, and greeted Binyam Mohamed with all the brightness I could muster.

Not that I expected Binyam, the most abused of Reprieve’s thirty clients in Gitmo, to show much jubilation. It is hard to buoy a man who has experienced years of physical and psychological torture. Under the classification rules, I’m not allowed to write a word that Binyam said in reply. I can say that when I bade him farewell and promised to catch him on the outside, he shrugged and smiled a sardonic smile. And perhaps just a spark of hope in his eyes.

As I glanced back at him in a jumpsuit and chains, I remembered that this man was broken in our name, along with countless others. I had been sure Binyam was to be the first man released by the Obama administration. Yet the government that ruined Binyam’s life seems to be well into the business of forgetting.

President Obama inherited a human rights debacle of epic proportions. One of his earliest acts, during his very first hours in office, was to signal a change of policy by ordering the closure of Guantánamo. But the administration’s current response now seems to have reverted to the secretive policies of the Bush administration, flouting the principles of open government that he had pledged to revive.

Yet, not once has the US government admitted where it took Binyam Mohamed between April of 2002 and May of 2004. Of course, our client knows — and we have seen the rendition flight logs and crew registers that bolster his account. There is also a wealth of government documents that would show exactly what was done to Binyam.

The Bush Justice Department was ordered no fewer than three times to give us, his lawyers, all “exculpatory” information in Binyam’s case; the response was stone-faced secrecy and flat noncompliance. Eventually, and begrudgingly, they handed over a smattering of documents identified as exculpatory by British intelligence.

I’ve seen these documents, but I can’t tell you what’s in them. The British courts have told us that they confirm Binyam’s account of his torture, but why should the American people depend on the British for this limited access to truth? The British courts have said that the people of a democratic society have a right to know if a government has tortured in their name. They are right.

There can be no legitimate national security interest in covering up torture. Yet, in Binyam’s lawsuit against Jeppesen Dataplan, the Obama government argues that the entire case is so secret that it must be thrown out for national security reasons. Only embarrassment for the Bush administration is at stake. So what has the new government to fear?

Obama speaks primarily of “looking ahead”, rather than back. The fallacy of this position is that it assumes we can know ourselves without ever holding a mirror up; that we can learn from history without knowing what that history was. What really happened to Binyam Mohamed? How many more shared his fate?

There is a way to rectify all this. First, Obama’s team must change tack on Binyam Mohamed and release evidence of his torture. The President should then appoint a non-partisan commission with the power to compel testimony, the clearance to access top-secret information, and the duty to report to the American public on seven years of torture policy.

The torture of Binyam Mohamed reflects on us as a people. So does the way we react to our past now. Binyam Mohamed will be wrestling with his demons for the rest of his days. The very least we, as a society, can do now is to look to our own.