Where the World's Views of America Come into Focus
Americans Debate the 'Gulag' of Guantanamo

Amnesty International's annual report on human rights around the world, in which it labeled America's prison at Guantanamo Bay the 'gulag of our time' has created a stir in the United States, and has resulted in a five-fold increase in donations to the human rights organization.

By Corine Lesnes

June 7, 2005

Original Article (French)    

Is American public opinion on Guantanamo evolving? By using the term “gulag of our time” in its annual report to refer to the prison on the American military base in Cuba, where several hundred prisoners have been held since 2002 without legal grounds, Amnesty International has provoked a heated debate in the United States. According to the Washington Post, hits on the organization’s Web site have multiplied sixfold and donations have quintupled since the publication of its annual report on May 25.

— C-SPAN VIDEO: William Schulz, President of Amnesty Intl., Answers Viewers Questions on Washington Journal, May 27, 00:27:07
— C-SPAN VIDEO: William Schulz, President of Amnesty Intl., Calls for an Independent Probe Into Torture Allegations Against the U.S., May 26, 00:51:42

On Sunday, June 5, the Democratic Senator Joseph Biden stated that the prison “should be closed.” The Democrats have rarely spoken so clearly. The candidate John Kerry had indicated that if he had been elected president, he would ensure compliance with the Geneva Conventions, but he didn’t question the notion of “enemy combatants” used by the Bush government, nor did he promise the dismantling of the [Giantanamo] detention center.

For Mr. Biden, who spoke on the ABC network, the prison has become “the greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting terrorists around the world.” There are now “more Americans in danger,” he said, than “if it didn’t exist.”


A supporter of President Bush, the New York Times editorialist David Brooks, also said that the political cost has become too high.

Guantanamo is “a daily defeat” for the United States, he said on American public television. “This is not only a war against individual terrorists, this is clearly a war for public opinion in the world and especially the Muslim world, and there’s no question that what’s happening is a defeat.”

The Amnesty International representative in Washington, William Schultz, occupied center stage the entire weekend. The press asked him to justify the comparison with the gulags of the USSR and their millions of deaths, a comparison called “absurd” by Mr. Bush and “extravagant” by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Fox News, the conservative cable network, thought it could embarrass him by interrogating him on his financial contributions to John Kerry’s campaign. But Mr. Schultz clearly showed that, though the analogy was clearly disproportionate, the term wasn’t chosen at random.

“Clearly this is not an exact or a literal analogy. Bith in size and in duration, there is no comparison between U.S. detention facilities and the gulag. People are not being starved in those facilities. They’re not being subjected to forced labor.” But, he added, “there are some similarities. The United States is maintaining an archipelago of prisons around the world, many of them secret prisons into which people are being literally disappeared. They are held secretly and without access to the legal system. This is what is similar to the gulags.”

Among the similarities, the [Amnesty] representative also mentioned the absence of communication with family and poor treatment. “There have been at least a hundred prisoner deaths, including 27 homicides, according to doctors.”

On Friday, the Pentagon published the results of an investigation realized by the base’s commander, General Jim Hood, on the affair of the profanation of the Koran revealed and then retracted by Newsweek. The military investigators went through 30,000 documents, in which they found five incidents of incorrect treatment of the book. A guard kicked a Koran; another walked on it. In March, a soldier accidentally urinated near a vent, sprinkling a detainee and his Koran.

— C-SPAN VIDEO: Pentagon Admits to Five Cases of 'Koran Mishandling', May 26, 00:29:43

Overall, the Pentagon affirmed, the Koran has been carefully respected. To the disappointment of the White House, the media have mostly mentioned the incidents involving guards, without mentioning the 15 cases where the detainees themselves ruined or disrespected their holy book. The New York Times questioned the Pentagon to find out why such a report [about the Koran mishandling] was made public on a Friday at 7:15 p.m., after the evening news. The spokesperson denied that the Army sought to “bury the bad news” to minimize the publicity.

© Watching America all rights reserved. Disclaimer