With an eye on the fate of Alan Johnston, the BBCcorrespondent who disappeared in Gaza on March 12, 2007, CNNrecently interviewed Olaf Wiig. In August 2006, the Fox News journalist had been kidnapped at gunpoint by an obscure Islamist group that demanded the release of all Muslimprisoners in the United States.
Wiig related that he had not been mistreated and that hisbiggest torture was facing the uncertainty, the not knowingwhere he was, why he was there, and for how long he had tostay there before being released, if he was to be releasedat all. Wiig was eventually set free after two weeks incaptivity.
Uncertainty was also the word that constantly popped up ina series of interviews I did with Lebanese mothers whosesons and husbands had disappeared during or after the CivilWar. All of them said it was the uncertainty over the fateof their loved ones that tormented them the most. In fact,most of them said they preferred to know their son was dead,than to not know at all. At least, so they argued, theywould be able to turn the page and move on with their lives.
No doubt, the Argentinean Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,whose children disappeared under the reign of the militaryjunta, would answer in similar fashion. And so would thefamilies of the thousands that disappeared in countries asvaried as Chile, Algeria and the former Soviet Union.
Although there are differences, Wiig and Johnston, and thechildren of Lebanon and Argentina, all fell victim to whatis known in the jargon as “forced disappearance,” whichapplies to an organization or state that kidnaps, illegallydetains and often tortures a person for political reasons.The victim is imprisoned without trial at a secret location,sometimes for years on end. At a certain point he or she maysuddenly be released, yet it will mostly end in murder,after which the body will be dumped in an unknown location.
For the families involved, the end result is the same, asin both cases the victim vanishes from the face of theearth, while the suspected perpetrators deny any involvementand make sure all physical evidence is destroyed. Seeing theexamples cited above, it is frightening to realize that theWest, lead by the self-proclaimed freedom champions in Washington, has embarked ona path not so entirely different.
On June 8, Swiss investigator Dick Marty submitted hissecond report to the Council of Europe which points at agrowing body of evidence that, ever since 9/11, the CIA haskidnapped hundreds of presumed terror suspects around theworld and flown them to secret prisons in countries such asPoland, Rumania, Morocco, Egypt and Afghanistan. Andapparently it did so with tacit support of its Europeanallies.
Thus, Maher Arar, a Canadian of Syrian descent, wasarrested at Kennedy Airport in New York City and deported toSyria where he stayed 10 months in jail. Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, was arrested inMacedonia and flown to Afghanistan where he was held forfive months. In 2003, Egyptian Abu Omar was snatched by ateam of CIA agents in Milan and flown to Egypt where heremained in jail until February 2007. All three claim tohave been tortured.
These cases are arguably but the tip of the metaphoricaliceberg. Marty’s report was issued one day after six humanrights organizations had published a list with 39 names ofpeople, who at some point were in US custody, yet today areunaccounted for. In other words, they disappeared. Despiterepeated requests by organizations such as Human RightsWatch and Amnesty International, the US government refusesto comment or provide information about their whereabouts.
Lack of transparency and disrespect for basic human rightsseems to be the norm for the Bush administration inconducting its War on Terror. So, most Guantanomo Bay “enemycombatants” have still no clue for how long they will remainimprisoned, as they have never even been charged with anywrongdoings. In fact, it was only in 2006 that a courtruling forced the US government to release their names.
Much less reported in the mainstream media is the factthat in the aftermath of 9/11, thousands of people werearrested in the United States on immigration law violations.Most were Muslims and had overstayed their visa. Of coursethe administration had a legal ground to arrest thesepeople, yet most of them were jailed for months on end andeventually deported without having seen a lawyer or judge.
Hence, Shakir Baloch, a Canadian of Pakistani descent,stayed seven months in a New York jail and was only releasedafter his wife had managed to somehow track him down andfind an attorney.
On August 30, the annual International Day of theDisappeared takes place to draw attention to all thosepeople around the world detained in places unknown to theirrelatives or legal representatives. Let us hope that by thenAlan Johnston has been set free and that the United States,as the self-proclaimed beacon of freedom, recalls thatuniversal human rights are exactly that: universal.
Peter Speetjens is a Dutch writer and freelance consultant