Friday, March 09, 2007

Jose Padilla-- why this case matters

I had intended to write something on the Padilla case and its developments when we heard recently that, amazingly, Padilla was ruled competent to stand trial. has a good article on the background of the case and where it currently stands (the article, however, does not mention the recent and highly convenient misplacement of the tape of Padilla's final interrogation by the Pentagon). Suffice it to say, the government's treatment of Padilla, who is an American citizen, is not quite as much fitting of the term "Kafkaesque" as "Koestleresque" (for those of you unfamiliar with Darkness at Noon, I'm referring to the "semi-torture" to which the main character Rubashov is subjected alongside the "Kafkaesqueness" of his charges and trial, much of which we know Padilla to have also suffered).

Elaine Cassel notes in the Findlaw article that U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, who is currently presiding over Padilla's case, pretty much had to rule him competent based on the absurdity of the bar for using post-traumatic stress disorder as the basis for incompetency (and, from my non-lawyer perspective, Cassel's reasoning appears sound). The cases cited where such a defense was effective are about as laughably ridiculous as one could possibly imagine:
Consider the case of Russell Weston, who in 1998 stormed the U.S. Capitol building with a .38 caliber handgun. He was on a mission, he said, to dismantle the "Ruby Satellite System" that was spreading a deadly disease. He shot and killed two police officers because, he said, they were getting in the way of his reaching the controls of the system. However, he explained, they only appeared to be dead; they would wake up when he gave the order.

Weston was found incompetent, and ordered to be medicated in order to regain competence. To this day he is hospitalized in a North Carolina federal prison hospital, still being medicated. Even the government's experts say that Weston will likely never be competent to be tried.

A more recent example is Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who murdered her five children by drowning. (I discussed the Yates case in a prior column.) She was originally found to be incompetent because she was diagnosed as being profoundly depressed reported auditory hallucinations. She was hospitalized, medicated, found competent, and tried within three months.

If this is an accurate representation of the bar for PTSD-based incompetency, then it is perhaps understandable that Padilla did not qualify, as almost no one ever would, including many people who, by any reasonable standards, would be incompetent to stand trial.

His lawyers are now pushing for a dismissal based on egregiously inhumane conduct on the part of the government, and that makes a lot of sense considering what he went through. Glenn Greenwald has been on this case for a long time, and discusses Mr. Padilla's treatment here. It's a long post, and I suggest you read the whole thing, but here's a snippet:
For nearly two years – from June 9, 2002 until March 2, 2004, when the Department of Defense permitted Mr. Padilla to have contact with his lawyers – Mr. Padilla was in complete isolation. Even after he was permitted contact with counsel, his conditions of confinement remained essentially the same.

He was kept in a unit comprising sixteen individual cells, eight on the upper level and eight on the lower level, where Mr. Padilla’s cell was located. No other cells in the unit were occupied. His cell was electronically monitored twenty-four hours a day, eliminating the need for a guard to patrol his unit. His only contact with another person was when a guard would deliver and retrieve trays of food and when the government desired to interrogate him.

His isolation, furthermore, was aggravated by the efforts of his captors to maintain complete sensory deprivation. His tiny cell – nine feet by seven feet – had no view to the outside world. The door to his cell had a window, however, it was covered by a magnetic sticker, depriving Mr. Padilla of even a view into the hallway and adjacent common areas of his unit. He was not given a clock or a watch and for most of the time of his captivity, he was unaware whether it was day or night, or what time of year or day it was.

In addition to his extreme isolation, Mr. Padilla was also viciously deprived of sleep. This sleep deprivation was achieved in a variety of ways. For a substantial period of his captivity, Mr. Padilla’s cell contained only a steel bunk with no mattress. The pain and discomfort of sleeping on a cold, steel bunk made it impossible for him to sleep. Mr. Padilla was not given a mattress until the tail end of his captivity. . . .

Other times, his captors would bang the walls and cell bars creating loud startling noises. These disruptions would occur throughout the night and cease only in the morning, when Mr. Padilla’s interrogations would begin. Efforts to manipulate Mr. Padilla and break his will also took the form of the denial of the few benefits he possessed in his cell. . . .

Mr. Padilla’s dehumanization at the hands of his captors also took more sinister forms. Mr. Padilla was often put in stress positions for hours at a time. He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell. Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making his cell extremely cold for long stretches of time. Mr. Padilla was denied even the smallest, and most personal shreds of human dignity by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors.

A substantial quantum of torture endured by Mr. Padilla came at the hands of his interrogators. In an effort to disorient Mr. Padilla, his captors would deceive him about his location and who his interrogators actually were. Mr. Padilla was threatened with being forcibly removed from the United States to another country, including U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was threatened his fate would be even worse than in the Naval Brig.

He was threatened with being cut with a knife and having alcohol poured on the wounds. He was also threatened with imminent execution. He was hooded and forced to stand in stress positions for long durations of time. He was forced to endure exceedingly long interrogation sessions, without adequate sleep, wherein he would be confronted with false information, scenarios, and documents to further disorient him. Often he had to endure multiple interrogators who would scream, shake, and otherwise assault Mr. Padilla.

This is treatment that our goverment does not reserve even for serial killers and child rapists, who are not only spared from all manner of torture but allowed access to courts (not to mention, other humans).

Perhaps what has thrown some people's "torture" scents off (or, more aptly, allowed them to rationalize it away) is the psychological emphasis of Padilla's treatment. Certainly the low "physical" element of it is the Administrations' justification. Psychological torture, however, is just as damaging to the mind as physical. Consider, also, that for the torturers, focusing on the mind rather than the body has its advantages: it leaves no marks so it's harder to prove, people are less appalled b/c it doesn't fit their conventional images of what "torture" looks like (making it easier to deal with both for the bystanders and the interrogators themselves), and it's more difficult to defend oneself against. Furthermore, one can see the effects pretty quickly. My understanding is it can take only days (or even hours) of complete isolation before one begins to suffer psychological damage that can take many years of therapy to heal.

This leads into a necessary discussion of his current competency, however. As one would expect, the torture of Mr. Padilla-- and let's not mince words: we called this "torture" when the Soviets engaged in it, it's torture now-- was so psychologically damaging and disorienting that it has caused him to regard everyone he sees (except, ironically, his torturers) as possible ruses or government agents acting out a new stage of his interrogation, including his own defense attorneys. From Naomi Klein, writing for The Guardian UK:
According to his lawyers and two mental health specialists who examined him, Padilla has been so shattered that he lacks the ability to assist in his own defence. He is convinced that his lawyers are "part of a continuing interrogation program" and sees his captors as protectors. In order to prove that "the extended torture visited upon Mr Padilla has left him damaged", his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during those years in the navy brig. The prosecution strenuously objects, maintaining that "Padilla is competent" and that his treatment is irrelevant.

The US district judge Marcia Cooke disagrees. "It's not like Mr Padilla was living in a box. He was at a place. Things happened to him at that place." The judge has ordered several prison employees to testify on Padilla's mental state at the hearings, which began yesterday. They will be asked how a man who is alleged to have engaged in elaborate anti-government plots now acts, in the words of brig staff, "like a piece of furniture".

Is it any wonder why that they believe he is unfit to stand trial? And is the absurdity of the bar for incompetency not apparent?

Perhaps the sickest part of it all, however, is one simple fact undisputed by the government: even though Mr. Padilla is the only one who suffered this treatment and is getting to chance to defend himself in court, there are many others like him who are getting no such opportunity. From Naomi Klein, again:
These same practices have been documented in dozens of cases of "extraordinary rendition" carried out by the CIA, as well as in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many have suffered the same symptoms as Padilla. According to James Yee, a former army Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo, there is an entire section of the prison called Delta Block for detainees who have been reduced to a delusional state. "They would respond to me in a childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over." All the inmates of Delta Block were on 24-hour suicide watch.

Human Rights Watch has exposed a US-run detention facility near Kabul known as the "prison of darkness" - tiny pitch-black cells, strange blaring sounds. "Plenty lost their minds," one former inmate recalled. "I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors."

Now none of these people will be able to defend themselves adequately in court, either, assuming they ever see the light of day again.

The people running this country and the movement they represent do not believe in our principles. The rule of law, habeas corpus, the right to a fair jury trial (which Thomas Jefferson called "the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution"), and the dignity of all humankind bestowed with certain inalienable rights, are all foreign, repugnant concepts to these authoritarians and half-wits.

No comments: