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My feet in the air: Congressional Recidivism, the Guantanamo Variations

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"I did hang on chains for five days. When the doctor come to check if I was okay, if I can survive or not, then they put me back down. And, if they say okay, then they put me back up again." -- Murat Kurnaz testifying before the Congressional Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights via satellite, May 20, 2008.

If they gave Emmies for CSPAN Theater, yesterday's hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee should have been a shoe in. The hearing, chaired by Mr. DeLaHunt (D-MA), managed to proceed as if no one in Congress nor any one in the American public has yet been made aware that innocent people have been detained at Guantanamo for years and that during their illegal detention, they have been subjected to abuse and torture. It's hard to keep it fresh after so many performances; it demands a sort of inverse sprezzatura to make old news look new, to make the habitual seem difficult, surprising, even exotic.

At one point, Mr. DeLaHunt called the hearing "the end of silence". "The End of Credulity" seems a more apt title for anyone who has been paying attention these last six years and who desires never again to be insulted by a panel of representative grimaces or expressions of outrage from well meaning House members who apparently never watch their own re-runs on C-SPAN. Maybe Congress should have fewer hearings on the torture of innocents at Gitmo. Maybe they should start holding listenings.

Yesterday's hearing did have a new element disrupting the tedium of these Kabuki-like presentations. A young man who had been among the wrongfully detained for more than five years was testifying via satellite from the safety of Germany. The American public has been largely protected from the first hand accounts of those fortunates who have managed to process out of our prison camp in Cuba. He read a statement in measured, badly inflected English. He was at every point co-operative, respectful and more generous than I could have been had the American Government stolen five years of my life and deposited them in some hidden hell of isolation, abuse and torture.

Mr. Kurnaz was a religious tourist in Pakistan when he was taken off a bus by the Pakistani army and sold to the United States for $3,000.00. The evidence brought against him was that he had associated with a well known religious organization whose membership numbers in the tens of millions and which has no known ties to any terrorist organization. The better piece of evidence was that his traveling companion was a suicide bomber – some two years after Mr.Kurnaz was already in custody. (This particular friend is alive and well back home in Germany and has never been charged with any such crime, let alone, has never blown himself to kingdom come. These facts never fazed the prosecutors at Gitmo.)

It was revealed during the hearing that both the American government and the German government were aware and had discussed Mr. Karnuz's innocence as early as 2002 -- after he'd been beaten, shocked with electricity to his feet, and tortured with forced water inhalation in Kandahar for three months by American agents and sometime after he'd been flown to Guantanamo Bay. So, for years after both governments knew to a certainty this was an innocent man, he continued to be caged, abused, threatened and tortured. For years.

Now, the problem with this story and, indeed, the problem with this hearing, and with all future hearings like it, is that this story is only a variation of many stories we've already heard many times. Mr. Kurnaz was, on his way to freedom after being cleared, shoved into a room and threatened by one last interrogator. He could either sign a statement saying he'd never again fight with Al Qaida or he could plan on staying in the American prison camp for the rest of his life. Mr. Kurnaz didn't sign, again. Having never fought with Al Qaida, he couldn't swear he'd never do it again.

His story is simply a variation of Sami al Haj's story. al Haj was detained for five years as well. The evidence against him was that he trained to work a camera. Mr. al Haj was a photographer with al Jazeera at the time of his kidnapping by American forces. For six years, his American captors tried to coerce him into declaring that al Jazeera was an Al Qaida front. Mr. al Haj never capitulated to that falsehood; instead, he went on a hunger strike for over four hundred days, preferring a clear path to death than the easier path to dishonor or to complicity with criminality. Sami al Haj was finally released, put on a 20 hour flight back home, during which time he was given no food, no water, and no medication. Upon his arrival, he was rushed to a hospital.

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Elizabeth Ferrari is a San Francisco author and activist.
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