Reflections on Prisonsers of War, Political Prisoners, and Human Rights

by Lori Berenson

Huacariz Prison -- Cajamarca, Perú, April 20, 2003

A few weeks ago, shortly after the US coalition invaded Iraq, there was much publicity about the capture of some US soldiers. Immediately, the US government expressed outrage that an Arab TV channel televised images of these soldiers. The US government demanded respect for the human rights of these prisoners of war. Obviously, to most, if not all people, myself included, the respect for the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war is of utmost importance and all parties in conflicts must respect them. However, only a few days later CNN (which did not suffer attacks like the Arab station Al Jazeera) showed the world prisoners of war captured by the coalition. One saw US soldiers handcuffing Iraqi soldiers and civilians and literally tossing them onto a US Army truck to take them "who knows where." Tossing a human being onto a truck as if he or she were a sack of potatoes is in itself inhumane and degrading treatment in violation of the Geneva Convention. Of much more concern is what could have happened to those people when the cameras weren't focused on them. Throughout history, brutal mistreatment and savage tortures have been applied to detainees all around the world. On a visit to almost any prison, especially one with political prisoners or prisoners of war, one meets victims of such horrendous policies.

Do all people really have rights? First seems to come the "right" that the powerful believe they have to rule over others, in whatever manner they feel like. Isn't it hypocritical of leaders to demand the respect for human rights when they themselves don't show respect for them? It is extremely upsetting to realize this hypocrisy, not only by viewing the images of Iraqi prisoners that CNN's cameras projected but also by thinking about the many people detained on US soil under unknown conditions with their fundamental rights violated by the US Patriot Act.

More than a year ago, the world witnessed the inhumane transfer of Taliban prisoners of war to the US military base in Guantanamo, Cuba, and, of course, no one really knows what they may be suffering, as is the case of the many detained in jails across the US after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It reminds me of life in Peruvian jails where, for many years, the public could not find out what happened to prisoners in jail, much less what happened in the army or police headquarters during interrogations designed to extract information. Being a political prisoner myself, I have first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be in the hands of a system that not only detests prisoners (especially political prisoners or prisoners of war), but also regards them as being something less than human.

An image I saw on TV many years ago of mistreatment of prisoners of war comes back vividly. During the guerrilla offensive of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in San Salvador, in November 1989, the Salvadoran army showed a captured FMLN combatant to the press. They paraded this young man before the cameras with his arms tied behind his back as if he were an object. On his naked chest, his captives had carved in his flesh the word "terrorist" in capital letters over two inches high. I don't know if this young man survived, but I do know that at that time the US government financed the Salvadoran armed forces with exorbitant sums of money. Moreover, US military personnel trained the military in El Salvador and many officers of the Salvadoran military and police forces attended the infamous school of torture at Fort Benning, Georgia - the School of the Americas. I wonder if the officers in charge of the soldiers who carved the chest of this prisoner of war had studied counterinsurgency in that academy where so many officers have "perfected" their methods for causing abominable suffering to detainees.

Changing the inhumane way this world is run requires massive awareness of these horrible realities. All people, especially US citizens, must know what their governments have promoted and the crimes against humanity they have committed supposedly in the interests of their nation and their citizens. Awareness must lead us to action. It is everyone's moral obligation.