THIS is a Gulag

Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International has characterized the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay as “the gulag of our times” , demonstrating her utter lack of perspective or knowledge of history. Anne Applebaum, the author of GULAG: a History, neatly places the Soviet Gulag into the proper historical context (excerpted from a PBS interview and cleaned it up for readability):

It belongs in the context most obviously of the Holocaust, which… killed six million Jews plus many millions of other people plus the enormous destruction of the Second World War. It belongs in the context of the Chinese and Cambodian revolutions and the… famine in China and the culture revolution in China which…which killed-the…Chinese, the experience of Chinese communism is probably in the… many, many tens of millions. The gulag itself  I think my estimate is that some eighteen million people passed through the camps… of which two to three million probably died.

Nationmaster attempts to enumerate the physical toll of the Soviet Gulag system:

The total documentable deaths in the corrective-labour system from 1934 to 1953 amount to 1,054,000, including political and common prisoners; note that this does not include nearly 800,000 executions of “counterrevolutionaries”, as they were generally conducted outside the camp system. From 1932 to 1940, at least 390,000 peasants died in places of labor settlements; this figure may overlap with the above, but, on the other hand, it does not include deaths outside the 1932-1940 period, or deaths among non-peasant internal exiles. The number of people who were prisoners at one point or the other is, of course, much larger, and one may assume that many of the survivors suffered permanent physical and psychological damage. Deaths at some camps are documented more thoroughly than those at others; note also that access to some data in historical archives is becoming more restricted again.

If you’re a more visual person, see Winds of Change.NET’s Sept. 2004 coverage of Nikolai Geitman’s gulag art. Be sure to click on the accompanying picture, so you understand exactly what it represents.

There were many “flavors” of Gulag camps, none of them pleasing to the senses. There were camps for children, mothers with children, wives of political prisoners and test subjects:

bq. Variety

In addition to the most common category of camps that practiced hard physical labour and prisons of various sorts, other forms also existed.

* A unique form of Gulag camps called sharashka (шарашка, the goofing-off place) were in fact secret research laboratories, where the arrested and convicted scientists, some of them prominent, were anonymously developing new technologies, and also conducting basic research.

* Psikhushka (психушка, the nut house), the forced medical treatment in psychiatric imprisonment was used, in lieu of camps, to isolate and break down political prisoners. This practice became much more common after the official dismantling of the Gulag system. See Vladimir Bukovsky, Pyotr Grigorenko.

* Special camps or zones for children (Gulag jargon: “малолетки”, maloletki, underaged), for disabled (in Spassk), and for mothers (“мамки”, mamki) with babies. These categories were considered as not producing any useful outcome and often subjected to more abuse.

* Camps for “wifes of traitors of Motherland” (there was a special category of repressed: “Traitor of Motherland Family Member” (ЧСИР, член семьи изменника Родины)).

* Under the supervision of Lavrenty Beria who headed both NKVD and the Soviet Atom bomb program until his demise in 1953, thousands of zeks were used to mine uranium ore and prepare test facilities on Novaya Zemlya, Vaygach Island, Semipalatinsk, among other sites. Reports even state that Gulag prisoners were used in early nuclear tests (the first was conducted in Semipalatinsk in 1949) in decontaminating radioactive areas, and nuclear submarines.

The data on the Soviet Gulag does not even touch on other Soviet atrocities such as the forced famines in the Ukraine and elsewhere in the Soviet Union, which is estimated to have taken the lives of well over 10,000,000 citizens. It is fair to say the entire Soviet Union, particularly under the rule of Josef Stalin, was a Gulag.

Today, real gulags exist in countries such as Iran, Cuba, Sudan and Libya, based on the reports from Amnesty. The entire country of North Korea can be accurately described as a Gulag.

The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea states that up to 200,000 political prisoners are in forced work camps or jails where starvation, rape, forced abortions and infanticide are policy. The existence of the camps is confirmed via satellite imagery. The economic policies of North Korea have repeatedly caused famine and starvation while Kim Jong-Il and the elites live in luxury. It has been estimated that up to 5 million North Koreans have died since the latest rounds of sorrow began in the 1990s. The desperate situation has caused tens of thousands of North Koreans to risk their lives by fleeing to China, as those captured and returned are placed in the brutal gulags of the state. North Korea also has kidnapped Japanese citizens who are forced to train North Korean intelligence officers in the language and customs of Japan. Many of these Japanese citizens have not been returned to this day.

Yet Amnesty International reserves the term Gulag for the United States alone. What are the offenses that permit Amnesty to characterize the United States as a Gulag? According to Time Magazine:

Some 750 detainees have passed through its gates at one time or another. Today it houses about 520, with the majority hailing from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Yemen. The most recent batch of new prisoners arrived last September….

Who has been released? Over the past three years, 234 detainees have been permitted to leave Gitmo, but 67 were released on the condition that they be held by their home governments, including Pakistan, Britain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. At least 12 of those set free are believed to have resumed terrorist activities, according to the Defense Department. The vast majority of those released were deemed to be no longer a threat or of any intelligence value. Since the U.S. started the review tribunals last fall, about 40 detainees have been or will be freed because they were found not to be enemy combatants after all….

Have detainees been abused? In its recently issued annual report on human rights, Amnesty International said Guantanamo had become the “gulag of our times.” While disputing many of the detainees’ allegations of beatings, sexual taunts and other mistreatment, the U.S. is nonetheless investigating them. One of those inquiries, the findings of which are expected to be issued soon by Air Force Lieut. General Randall Schmidt, was spurred by eyewitness accounts from FBI agents at Gitmo from mid-2002 to mid-2004. According to just-released memos, agents reported seeing captives shackled in a fetal position for 24 hours without food or water and left in their own excrement, another gagged with duct tape that covered much of his head and another who had torn out his hair after being chained all night in a hot room. Former Army Sergeant Erik Saar, who served at Gitmo and wrote Inside the Wire with TIME correspondent Viveca Novak, has described an instance in which a female interrogator smeared fake menstrual blood on a captive’s face .

Have any died there? Although the U.S. military has recently acknowledged that more than 30 detainees died in custody in Iraq and Afghanistan from August 2002 to November 2004, there have been no reports or allegations of detainee deaths at Guantanamo. According to the Pentagon, prisoners there have attempted suicide 34 times and have committed several hundred acts classified by the military as “self-injurious manipulative behavior,” but none have died as a result. A Saudi man who tried to hang himself in 2003 ended up in a coma for several months but ultimately regained consciousness and learned to walk again .

What are living conditions there like? The best-behaved detainees are held in Camp 4, a medium-security, communal-living environment with as many as 10 beds in a room; prisoners can play soccer or volleyball outside up to nine hours a day, eat meals together and read Agatha Christie mysteries in Arabic. Less cooperative detainees typically live and eat in small, individual cells and get to exercise and shower only twice a week. A new, $16 million maximum-security facility can hold up to 100 of the most dangerous detainees .

This is what we know about the situation and conditions at Gitmo. Of the 167 prisoners actually set free (22% of the population held at one point in time), at least 7% of them “have resumed terrorist activities.” These are the prisoners deemed the least likely threat. There have been reports of isolated incidents of abuses of power which are currently under investigation – investigations started by the Department of Defense. Most of these reports have been generated by the prisoners, who are taking a page from the al Qaeda training manual that directs them to submit false reports to discredit the United States. There have been no reported deaths. Prisoners are fed and provided adequate living conditions, and some are able to live in a communal setting.

No doubt there have been some abuses at the prison. The United States military, like any other organization, is not immune from criminal activities within its midst. But for Amnesty International to characterize Guantanamo Bay as being on par with one of the worst atrocities in human history while issuing a pass to North Korea effectively deflates the meaning of the word Gulag. It also cheapens the stature of Amnesty International, who should know the difference between directed mass murder and imprisonment, and problems inherent within all prison systems.

Additional Reading

Glen Wishard looks at the decline and fall of Amnesty International. A taste:

There was definite focus to AI. The focus was on the prevention of torture and imprisonment for non-crimes. Members did not address letters to their own governments. The point was objective devotion to simple common principles, and politics was right out of it. In fact, AI still claims “A.I. is carefully impartial. It does not support or oppose any government or political system.” Only now it’s a pathetic lie.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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