Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2008
Issue No. 896
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Our own Guantanamo

By Salama A Salama

Atrocities and human rights violations occur everywhere, in the jungles of Rwanda as in America, the unrivalled leader of the free world, in nations with established liberal traditions in Europe as well as in countries with religious and spiritual legacies in the Arab and Islamic regions. To each their crimes; to each their prejudices and prisons. Detention camps come in all forms and shapes, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, from Aqrab to Borg Al-Arab, but the motivation and the practices are all too similar.

It is ironic that torture, detention without trial, abduction and incarceration on mere suspicion have all spread like wildfire across the world just as freedom and human rights became bywords for the new order and civil rights organisations sprang into action all around us. Thousands of decisions, recommendations and reports issue forth from international organisations and human rights councils every year, and yet the atrocities go on.

Since the US launched its war on terror, the Bush administration ditched due process and international norms, twisted every limb of justice, and trampled the rights of defendants underfoot, all in the name of protecting national security. The US decided that security and justice didn't go together. The strongest country in the world set an example that inspired smaller nations that cannot even feed their people. In the end, neither justice nor security was served.

In some countries, however, things may be about to change. As the Bush administration neared the end of its term, Americans started looking into ways of restoring the justice that has always been the hallmark of their political system. They are even thinking of closing down Guantanamo and amending the Patriot Act. Already, several innocent inmates, including Saudis, Moroccans, Yemenis and a cameraman from Al-Jazeera have been set free from Guantanamo, although 270 men are still held in the notorious detention camp.

In our part of the world, nonetheless, there is little hope that the barbarism that has invaded our lives is going to be over anytime soon. In Egypt, where justice and respect of the law are approximate concepts at best, detentions without trial and random incarceration are still the norm. Aside from members of Islamist groups who were released after decades in prison following their so-called "revisions", many are still behind bars. Some of our detainees are being held despite court orders for their release.

For obvious reasons related mostly to outside pressure, most Arab countries, including Egypt, have formed semi-official national human rights councils. These councils were apparently intended as a smokescreen. Their task was to deflect criticism, respond to foreign reports issued by other governments and international organisations, and be a meeting ground for visiting dignitaries. In Egypt, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) was set up during a time of hope for political reform. But the NCHR fell below our expectations. It failed to influence the course of political life, reform the legislative and executive structure governing civil rights, or protect the people from repression and persecution.

To be fair, the NCHR released several reports about the inhumane conditions in our prisons and police detention facilities, spoke up against irregularities in the election process and offered suggestions on the streamlining of detention procedures. The facts and figures it compiled tell a story of our own Guantanamo.

Unfortunately, most of the NCHR's recommendations didn't cut it with the government. So now we have councils that seem to care about rights, but to whom no one seems to listen. We can fantasise all we want about human rights, but when are we going to have them?

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