Allegations in the May 9 Newsweek that U.S. military interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had abused a Koran, and even flushed one down a toilet, led to riots that left several dead in Afghanistan May 11. By the next day, protests had spread from Jalalabad (where they began) to Kabul, where a CARE office was ransacked, and several other cities across the country. Large, angry protests were also held in Pakistan, Indonesia, Gaza, Yemen and elsewhere around the Islamic world. (Reuters, May 13)
The brief Newsweek item (“SouthCom Showdown”) had reported on the expected results of an upcoming U.S. Southern Command investigation into the abuse of prisoners at Gitmo. The Koran abuse allegations were attributed to an anonymous official said to be familiar with the investigation. The Pentagon denied the claims in outraged terms, prompting Newsweek to issue a re-examination of the story May 15. Yesterday, following what the NY Times called a “drumbeat of critcism from the White House,” Newsweek formally announced it is “retracting” the story. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the retraction was “a good first step,” and that Newsweek now has a responsibility to spread the word to the Muslim world that U.S. interrogators “treat the Koran with great care and respect.”(CNN, May 16; NYT, May 17; AP, May 18)
The affair certainly points to the dangers of sloppy journalism, and particularly the increasingly prevelant and accepted tendency to rely on anonymous sources (which was frowned upon as poor practice prior to the general dumbing-down of media which our generation has witnessed). However, there is a distinct whiff of capitulation to official pressure in Newsweek’s “retraction”–which may ultimately prove a greater violation of ethics than the story itself. It certainly seems prejudicial to assume that the claims are baseless just because Newsweek garbled the story. This is made clear by Newsweek‘s own initial clarification on the affair (slated for the May 23 issue but now presumably superceded by the “retraction”):
On Friday night, Pentagon spokesman [Lawrence] DiRita called NEWSWEEK to complain about the original PERISCOPE item. He said, “We pursue all credible allegations” of prisoner abuse, but insisted that the investigators had found none involving Qur’an desecration. DiRita sent NEWSWEEK a copy of rules issued to the guards (after the incidents mentioned by General Myers) to guarantee respect for Islamic worship. On Saturday, [reporter Michael] Isikoff spoke to his original source, the senior government official, who said that he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Qur’an, including a toilet incident. But the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the SouthCom report. Told of what the NEWSWEEK source said, DiRita exploded, “People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said. How could he be credible now?”
In the meantime, as part of his ongoing reporting on the detainee-abuse story, Isikoff had contacted a New York defense lawyer, Marc Falkoff, who is representing 13 Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo. According to Falkoff’s declassified notes, a mass-suicide attempt—when 23 detainees tried to hang or strangle themselves in August 2003—was triggered by a guard’s dropping a Qur’an and stomping on it. One of Falkoff’s clients told him, “Another detainee tried to kill himself after the guard took his Qur’an and threw it in the toilet.” A U.S. military spokesman, Army Col. Brad Blackner, dismissed the claims as unbelievable. “If you read the Al Qaeda training manual, they are trained to make allegations against the infidels,” he said.
More allegations, credible or not, are sure to come. Bader Zaman Bader, a 35-year-old former editor of a fundamentalist English-language magazine in Peshawar, was released from more than two years’ lockup in Guantánamo seven months ago. Arrested by Pakistani security as a suspected Qaeda militant in November 2001, he was handed over to the U.S. military and held at a tent at the Kandahar airfield. One day, Bader claims, as the inmates’ latrines were being emptied, a U.S. soldier threw in a Qur’an. After the inmates screamed and protested, a U.S. commander apologized. Bader says he still has nightmares about the incident.
So what of the concrete facts changed between Sunday and Monday to warrant Newsweek’s “retraction”? Voluminous news reports on the retraction (generally with a gloating and condescending air) do not tell us. Nor were these the first such allegations of Koran abuse at Gitmo and other U.S. military facilities–something else which is being forgotten now. Thanks to the Corrente blog for saving this recent relic from the memory hole (note the last line):
January 9, 2005
Sunday | FINAL EDITION | HEADLINE: Nightmare of Guantanamo…. U.S. prison camp in Cuba has become legal black hole, reporter says BYLINE: John Freeman Special to The Denver Post
“They pepper sprayed me in the face, and I started vomiting; in all I must have brought up five cupfuls. They pinned me down and attacked me, poking their fingers in my eyes, and forced my head into the toilet pan and flushed. They tied me up like a beast and then they were kneeling on me, kicking and punching. Finally they dragged me out of my cell in chains … and shaved my beard, my hair, my eyebrows.”
And earlier this year, that process finally began. In March, the government released five British men from Guantanamo after nearly three years. They had been captured in Afghanistan, where they had gone to offer humanitarian aid. Rose interviewed them that same month, two months before the allegations of Abu Ghraib first surfaced, and yet they described a period of captivity eerily similar to that of the Iraqis in Abu Ghraib.
In August Mr Ahmed, Mr Rasul and Mr Iqbal issued a 115-page dossier accusing the US of abuse, including allegations that they were beaten and had their Korans thrown into toilets.*
(*Also published in The Hartford Courant [Connecticut], January 16, 2005.)
Further such allegations noted by Corrente concern the “Tipton Three,” a trio of British nationals deported to the UK in March 2004 after two years of confinement at Gitmo:
August 5, 2004
The Independent (London)
In the report, released in New York, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul – the so-called Tipton Three – said one inmate was threatened after being shown a video in which hooded inmates were forced to sodomise each other. Guards allegedly threw prisoners’ Korans into toilets, while others were injected with drugs, it was claimed.
August 5, 2004
Daily News (New York) | Byline: By James Gordon Meek and Derek Rose.
They say that rats and scorpions had free run of their sweltering cages, loud rock music was used to drown out the sound of prayers, and sleep deprivation was common.
“They would kick the Koran, throw it into the toilet and generally disrespect it,” Asif Iqbal wrote.
And yet more:
March 26, 2003
The Washington Post | Final Edition | SECTION: A SECTION; Pg. A12 HEADLINE: Returning Afghans Talk of Guantanamo; Out of Legal Limbo, Some Tell of Mistreatment | BYLINE: Marc Kaufman and April Witt, Washington Post Staff Writers
The men, the largest single group of Afghans to be released after months of detainment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, gave varying accounts of how American forces treated them during interrogation and detainment. Some displayed medical records showing extensive care by American military doctors, while others complained that American soldiers insulted Islam by sitting on the Koran or dumping their sacred text into a toilet to taunt them.
Ehsannullah, 29, said American soldiers who initially questioned him in Kandahar before shipping him to Guantanamo hit him and taunted him by dumping the Koran in a toilet.
June 28, 2004
Financial Times Information | Global News Wire – Asia Africa Intelligence Wire | InfoProd | Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
One of the men, Timur Ishmuratov of Tatarstan, told ORT on 24 June — prior to the release — that he had been captured by Northern Alliance forces shortly after the beginning of the U.S. military action in Afghanistan and “sold” to the Americans for $ 3,000-$ 5,000. Former prisoner Airat Vakhitov told ORT about alleged mistreatment while he was at Guantanamo. “They tore the Koran to pieces in front of us, threw it into the toilet,” Vakhitov said. “When people were praying, they forced their way in and put their feet on people’s heads and beat them.”
See also our last blog post on the still-unfolding torture scandal at Gitmo and other detention facilities.