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Indefinite detention: Instrument of tyranny

MCT FORUM, By Allen S. Keller and Yang-Yang Zhou –

When President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act on New Year’s Eve, he codified policies of arbitrary and indefinite detention for terror suspects including possibly U.S. citizens. Alexander Hamilton referred to such policies as the “favorite and most formidable instruments of tyranny.” Based on our experience in evaluating and caring for victims of torture and human rights abuses from all over the world, Hamilton was right.

Regardless of the law’s applicability to U.S. citizens, indefinite detention in a military facility without charge can be tantamount to torture, causing profound health consequences.

Omoyele Sowore, a Nigerian-born journalist and pro-democracy activist, is a former client of our program. When Mr. Sowore recently spoke at an event marking the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International, he poignantly noted that when a nation chooses national security over basic freedoms, it becomes a great danger to its own people. He was originally describing African dictatorial regimes.

For protesting government corruption in Nigeria, Mr. Sowore was abducted, detained, shackled and beaten on eight separate occasions — each time in an unknown location, uncertain when his imprisonment would end. However, rather than the physical abuse, he recalls the uncertainty and inability to challenge his arrest as what caused him the most suffering.

“Indefinite detention is absolutely torture. It breaks your body, your will and your dignity. Most people, who have never been tortured before, do not know that the worst part is the psychological rather than the physical.”

The health consequences of indefinite detention can be severe and long-lasting.

As a result of his imprisonment and torture, Mr. Sowore suffered for several years from symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress. Fearing that he could be re-arrested at any time, he always carried toiletries with him and wore an extra pair of pants. Ultimately, he fled to the United States, applied for and was granted asylum. Like him, the vast majority of the individuals for whom we care — students, journalists, religious leaders, and human rights activists — were arbitrarily detained by their governments, often in the name of national security.

Although many Americans perceive all indefinite detainees as terrorists, in reality, this is not the case. In Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, for example, the majority of individuals detained there were subsequently released without ever having been formally charged. In the aftermath, there is no justice for these individuals who were wrongfully accused, imprisoned and subjected to torture methods for years.

It is hardly reassuring that President Obama accompanied his signing of the NDAA with a statement pledging that his administration will not authorize indefinite detention without trial for Americans. First, there are no assurances with future administrations. Second, the president’s record on following through with such promises is inconsistent at best.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of housing suspects at Guantanamo, the promise to close it comes to mind.

Finally, in the words of Mr. Sowore: “What is done cannot be undone.”

This new law signals yet another post-9/11 erosion of U.S. moral authority against torture and human rights abuses. We are now officially in the business of indefinite detention and disappearances. Who are we to censure dictatorships in Africa and elsewhere for doing the same?

With the 2012 elections approaching, President Obama should reread and reaffirm his own inaugural words: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. … Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”

In our work with torture survivors we are inspired by the lengths our clients take to flee tyrannies and gain legal status in this country because they believe so strongly in our American ideals. In defense of these ideals, we urge for not only the full repeal of the indefinite detention provisions under the NDAA but also a deeper assessment of how we ever allowed this to happen in the first place.

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