Justice in the US: Where accountability goes to die
I recall vividly the phone call I made to the family of Abdul Manan Gul Rahman in Peshawar, a victim of the US global War on Terror. At the time I thought it was to give my condolences to a brother, wife and two daughters in mourning over the loss of their loved one, but the truth of that call would instead serve as a reminder of the inhumanity of US war crimes.
It was 2009 and I was in Pakistan investigating enforced disappearances for the advocacy organisation CAGE. It is how I met the family of Gul Rahman, who begged me to find their loved one who they had not seen since 2003 – they were convinced he was being detained at the US detention facility at Bagram Airbase. They kept on repeating to me that he was only once the driver for Ghairat Baheer, a politician who had also been sent to Bagram, but had long been released. They didn’t understand why the US would release the man they had been looking for, but kept a hold of his former driver.
I still recall the intensity with which his daughters spoke of their desire to be men so they could physically rescue their father from Bagram.
''Since 2003, the US has been attempting to secure the trial, conviction and ultimately death penalty of a group of men accused of being responsible for planning the attacks on 11 September 2001 in the US. Twenty years on, after some of the worst torture to have been revealed in the process of detaining these men, we are still no close to learning the full truth of what actually happened. There has been no accountability for any crimes, and this is largely due to the extent to which torture has tainted every single aspect of the justice system.''
Months later, I had to inform the family that their loved one had actually been killed six years previously following the news that had just broken by the Associated Press, that in fact Gul had been murdered by US soldiers in 2002.
No one from the US government, the military, or even the journalists who were responsible for breaking the story had bothered to contact the family to inform them that their loved one had long been murdered.
Gul Rahman’s story eventually reached the Obama administration and the desk of then Attorney General Eric H Holder, only one of two cases of war crimes that would be taken up from a period where thousands were detained and tortured. Ultimately, the Obama-Holder period of Department of Justice accountability yielded few results in terms of wrongdoing by officials.
The refusal to prosecute the killers of Gul Rahman was the same decision that would be reached in the case of domestic acts of killing by police officers of black people such as Michael Brown – they would refuse to do so.
Last week Human Rights Watch published a report looking at the lack of accountability for war crimes by US soldiers in Iraq, as over 100,000 Iraqis had been detained since the invasion in 2003. The report highlights the cases of men such as Taleb al-Majli, a man detained by US forces while visiting family in Anbar province. He was one of the men held in detention at the notorious prison camp Abu Ghraib, subjected to physical, psychological and sexual humiliation by his interrogators.
Al-Majli would go on to be one of the men who was placed in a naked human pyramid by a female soldier, all for the amusement of other guards and soldiers. The trauma of torture and detention for al-Majli and those like him did not end on release, but rather continued long after, dictating their inability to heal and earn a basic living.
There has never been an adequate response to the torture that Bush’s leadership was responsible for, not by any administration since. Not only did president Obama refuse to prosecute, but went further in censoring further photos of abuse from release – largely because it was felt that it would increase anger at the US.
According to the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch: “Twenty years on, Iraqis who were tortured by US personnel still have no clear path for filing a claim or receiving any kind of redress or recognition from the US government…US officials have indicated that they prefer to leave torture in the past, but the long-term effects of torture are still a daily reality for many Iraqis and their families.”
The lack of accountability in the US for its own crimes has expanded malignantly to institutions around the world. While initially the International Criminal Court had sought to investigate war crimes in Afghanistan that had been committed by the Taliban and the US, after a great deal of pressure from the Trump administration, Karim Khan, the ICC’s chief prosecutor was forced to announce in 2021 that they would deprioritise any investigation of US crimes – a euphemism for dropping it entirely.
Conversations around accountability continue to this day. Since 2003, the US has been attempting to secure the trial, conviction and ultimately death penalty of a group of men accused of being responsible for planning the attacks on 11 September 2001 in the US. Twenty years on, after some of the worst torture to have been revealed in the process of detaining these men, we are still no close to learning the full truth of what actually happened. There has been no accountability for any crimes, and this is largely due to the extent to which torture has tainted every single aspect of the justice system.
As prosecutors at Guantanamo Bay attempt to bring the trial to order, they are met by the ghosts of their government’s torturous acts. On 5 October 2023, the military lawyer for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Lt William Xu revealed that the CIA had been involved in a process that used the children of Mohammed against him during his torture and interrogation. His two younger sons who were five and six at the time had been used as a bargaining chip during interrogations. As stated by Xu during the hearing:
“From the very beginning, these young children were used against Mr. Mohammad during questioning…He recalls being in the interrogation room and hearing his children crying in the next room and having the interrogator tell him that you, you can stop what you’re hearing.”
The prosecutors are scrambling to deny any direct governmental involvement in the detention of the children, but it is too little too late. Now added to the haunting cries of men and women held in US detention facilities, we can add those of children as young as five, all in the name of keeping the US safe from phantoms. What they created instead, was more anger and frustration than could have ever been envisaged before they began their global War of Terror.
Dr Asim Qureshi is the Research Director of the advocacy group CAGE and has authored a number of books detailing the impact of the global War on Terror.
Follow him on Twitter: @AsimCP
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