U.S. Detention Policy Is Messed Up

It's Better to be Detained by Iran


READ THIS DISCLAIMER: Iran's government is brutally repressive and unjust. I am not apologizing for the regime or trying to soften the hard edges of its repression. To be an Iranian dissident is to risk your life, while U.S. citizens can burn the President in effigy or call him Hitler. My point is that the United States' policy of detaining foreigners is worse than Iran's.

The latest news about the U.S. hikers who have been detained in Iran for 15 months is that Iran has finally set a date for a trial. Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal, and Sarah Shourd, who was released in mid-September, will face charges of espionage and illegal entry onto Iranian soil on November 6. In response, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pleaded for the release of Bauer and Fattal:
We continue to express our hope that the Iranian authorities will exercise the humanitarian option of releasing these two young men. We do not believe there is any basis, whatsoever, for them to be put on trial. And we regret that they and their families are being subjected to a criminal system that we do not think, in any way, reflects their actions. So it’s our continuing request to the Iranian Government that just as they released the young woman, that they release these two young men.
Glenn Greenwald nails the hypocrisy on its head with the sarcastic headline, "Iran needs stern lessons in freedom." I don't have anything to add to that.

What I want to cover is the differences between the Iranian and U.S. detention of foreign nationals. Besides the case of Roxana Saberi, I've read about Haleh Esfandiari, who wrote the book "My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran." It came out last year, after the June presidential elections and the Green Movement protests in the streets. Claire Messud reviewed it in The New York Review of Books' December 3, 2009 issue. The review spends a lot of time on the rest of Esfandiari's life, but there are a few details about her interrogation under house arrest and her eventual detention, from May 8 to August 21, 2007, in the Guantanamo of Iran, Evin Prison.

Background: Esfandiari is a dual national of Iran and America. She went to Iran in December 2006 to visit her ailing mother. On the way to the airport on December 30 to return to America, she was mugged and lost both her U.S. and Iranian passports, which is a known tactic of Iran's Intelligence Ministry. She was not allowed to leave the country and was put under house arrest. She was interrogated by the Intelligence Ministry for 50 hours over a six week period, then left alone for 11 weeks, and finally detained in Evin Prison on May 8, 2007. During her detention, she was allowed to make 1 minute phone calls to her mother on most nights.

Messud opens the review with dramatics:
Extraordinary events in Iran over the past six months have brought us images, voices, and narratives until recently unimaginable; they reveal, among other things, how little we understand about quotidian life in that country since the revolution. In the United States, we are nevertheless aware, with a dark tremor, of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, the black hole of the hard-liners’ repressive system. Emblematic of the regime, it is a site of torture and interrogation, of isolation, and of emotional as well as physical violence. It is a prison for the breaking of souls.
For many Iranians, Evin did break or even snuff out souls. But how was it for Esfandiari? She describes her chief interrogator, Ja’fari: "A smirk never left his face. His manner alternated between solicitous official…and faceless bureaucrat." I know official and especially bureaucrats have bad reputations nowadays, but come on! Messud uses the quote to try to scare us, but does she achieve it? Ja’fari's superior is described in Messud's words:
Hajj Agha, the more gracious and apparently accommodating of the two men, with whom she had more dealings once she was imprisoned in early May 2007, emerges in spite of his urbanity as the more sinister: his name is honorific rather than personal (“Hajj” refers to one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca; “Agha” is a title for a military officer), so he is, in fact, nameless; and as Esfandiari was not permitted to see his face, and forced to face the wall, he remains, hideously, a cipher.
Hideous cipher, really? While Esfandiari was forced to face a wall, detainees at Gitmo were repeatedly thrown against the wall. Messud says "because it becomes clear, during Esfandiari’s ordeal, that there are bickering factions behind the scrim: 'one ready to let me go, the other determined to hold on to me'" Our detainees do certainly not see any faction of their captors that want to let them go. I would guess that the only message they get is that they are going to die in their cages.

"[Esfandiari] was called upon to answer questions in writing, to provide documents and information pertaining to her work and life, and to speak on camera in a filmed “interview” that was broadcast nationally." It is impossible to get pictures of detainees outside of the military commissions. Can you even imagine a war on terror detainee being filmed and shown to American citizens? Of course the "interview" was a false confession, but so what? At least it shows the detainee as a human being, something that is strictly forbidden to be acknowledged of our detainees. Then Messud goes over the line:
before Esfandiari’s arrest, there were “eleven weeks of silence. It was a period of anxious waiting, which I tried to fill in various ways…. I spent my days in a figurative crouch…waiting for the blow to fall.” This hiatus, during which she did not know what her fate might be, was nothing short of psychological torture.
Okay, the "T" word, torture. Prepare to be horrified by Esfandiari:
My entanglement with the Intelligence Ministry meant I would never again feel safe in Iran, even at home. I could no longer carry out an unguarded conversation over the telephone. I believed the intelligence people were reading my e-mail. My nerves were always on edge…. I hated being cooped up in the apartment, but I was uncomfortable going out….

Mutti and I became increasingly isolated. The small group of academic “insiders” who had generously tried to help me began to disappear from my life…. I could no longer see the beauty of the landscape I had always loved. I saw only the gray ugliness of the streets, the piles of uncollected garbage, the potholes, the dirty water in the canals, the smog and the snarled traffic.
There are probably thousands of supposedly free Muslims in America who feel the same way right now. More Messud:
Even small moments of kindness in the prison proved hard to bear: when one of the guards, Hajj Khanum, brought her a flower, “a tiny rose, the size of my middle finger,” or when another she had nicknamed Sunny Face brought in a rice dish that Esfandiari had taught her to cook, she was all but overcome.
Overcome. I've never heard that word applied to how a Gitmo detainee feels. Is that somewhere between humiliated and in agony? Read David Hicks' account of his imprisonment to get a comparison:
Sitting or lying in the middle of the cage, away from the sides, were the only two positions we were allowed to assume. We could not stand up unless ordered to, and the biggest sin was to touch the enclosing wire. If we transgressed any of these rules, even if innocently looking about, we were dealt with by the IRF team, an acronym for Instant Reaction Force. The Military Police nicknamed this procedure being “earthed” or “IRFed,” because they would slam and beat us into the ground.

I first witnessed the IRF team a day or two after my arrival. An MP stopped outside the cage of an Afghan, my closest neighbour at the time. The MP demanded to know what the Afghan had scratched into the cement. He had not scratched anything and could not even speak or understand English. I heard the MP read, “Osama will save us.” The detainee had no idea what the guard was on about, yet the MP was furious when he did not respond. “I’ll teach you to resist,” the MP threatened and stormed off. Suddenly six MPs in full riot gear formed a line outside his cage. The first one held a full-length shield. He entered the cage first, slamming the detainee, pinning him to the cement floor with the shield, while the others beat him in the torso and face. The last to enter the cage was a dog handler with a large German shepherd. The dog was encouraged to bark and growl only centimetres from the Afghan’s face while he was being beaten. In later cases, the dogs bit detainees.

When they had finished, they chained him up and carried him out. His face was covered in blood. A few hours later an MP washed the blood off the cement with a scrubbing brush and hose. To add to that injustice, an MP told me some weeks later that he himself had scratched that statement into the cement before any of us had arrived at Guantánamo, while they had been training and awaiting our arrival.
And yes, David Hicks is white. But he's Muslim, and not secret at all, so that makes it okay. Well, you say, we don't imprison women. Think again. Um, but we wouldn't do that to American citizens, right? Nope, we would. What about with absolutely no evidence of wrong-doing? Yes, that wouldn't stop us either. But there is one thing we'd never do:
[Esfandiari] knew that her guards, for the most part, were not her enemies; and while shocked, she was perhaps not surprised when Ja’fari and “the boys,” his colleagues at the Intelligence Ministry, presented her with the gift of a book of poetry at the end of her time in Evin. Perhaps they thought that, in spite of the horrors they had inflicted upon her, the greatness of the poet Hafez was something on which they could all agree.
Isn't that special? I can picture the souvenir tee-shirt: "I was locked up in Evin Prison and all I got was this crappy book of poetry."

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