Monday, April 30, 2007

Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side

I was fortunate enough on Saturday night to be in the audience at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York for a screening of Taxi to the Dark Side, the new documentary by director Alex Gibney. The film is a damning and impassioned examination of use of torture by the United States on suspected terrorists after the September 11th attacks, stretching from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to Iraq. Gibney, whose 2005 documentary on the Enron fiasco, The Smartest Guys in the Room, was nominated for an Academy Award, has constructed a viscerally powerful examination of the way the Bush administration’s use of torture, often though by no means always obscured behind wink-and-nod acceptance and convoluted legalese, has devastated that lives of many of those on the front lines of recent military actions by the United States, both in terms of the local inhabitants of conflict zones and U.S. soldiers on the ground themselves.

The thread running throughout the film’s examination of culpability is the story of an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar, seized by Afghani militiamen in December 2002 at then turned over to the U.S. military detention center at Bagram Air Base. Five days later, after being hung from a cage in chains, kept awake for days at a time and kicked until a medical examiner later described his legs as having been “pulpified,” he was dead.

The film takes its title from comments that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney made to television host Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press on September 16, 2001. Asked what kind of response the United States was planning to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, Cheney answered as follows:

We also have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. We're going to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussions, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies if we're going to be successful. That's the world these folks operate in. And so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

What makes Gibney’s film so much more powerful and effective than many other recent ventures in political documentary cinema (which probably reached its nadir with Swiss director Nicolas Rossier’s smug, clueless and dilettantish attempt to whitewash Haiti’s recent political history) is the fact that Gibney never condescends to his subjects, whether they be humble Afghan farmers or the working-class military grunts who administered the beatings to Dilawar that eventually killed him. He does not excuse the actions of anyone, but he does glean insight into how a system rotten to the core makes brutal, criminal deaths such as that which happened to Dilawar not only possible but inevitable and how, while the low-level soldiers who implement policy will be held accountable in the event of public outcry, the criminals in suits and offices who wrote the policy have yet not been. The soldiers themselves, even those who administered the fatal beatings, appear quietly eloquent and terribly conflicted over what they have been party to.

“The main reason I did this film is that I wanted the truth to be told,” said one of the soldiers stationed at Bagram at the time, a hulking fellow named Damien Corsetti, who was at Saturday night’s screening. Corsetti was charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, assault and performing an indecent act with another person, and was later found not guilty of all charges. “The prisoners need their rights restored and we them an apology for what we did to them.”

And what of the commanders of men like Corsetti? Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld enjoys a quiet retirement, having left the Bush administration last year. His former deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, is currently clinging with his fingernails to his job as head of the World Bank, awash in scandal. John Yoo, deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice from 2001 to 2003, who co-authored a February 2002 memo advising that the U.S. military had no obligation to comply with international laws in the handling of detainees in the war on terrorism, is now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. Perhaps Yoo’s most memorable commentary on the whole torture saga came in a December 2005 debate with Doug Cassel, director of Notre Dame Law School's Center for Civil and Human Rights. Asked by Cassel whether "if the president deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?"

"No treaty," Yoo responded, and going on to say "I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that."

Even more recently, who can forget the words of U.S. president George W. Bush fhimself from a press conference in September of last year, when he declared that, when the U.S. government captured the Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah “the CIA used an alternative set of procedures” to question him.

“These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations.” Bush went on. “The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used -- I think you understand why -- if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.”

One month later, Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, a piece of legislation which, though specifically barring acts such as murder and rape and "cruel and inhuman" treatment, gave the green light for, among other things, withholding evidence from defendants, denying defendants the right to file habeas corpus petitions, established military tribunals for terror suspects, retained the right to send detainees to secret prisons abroad and gave immunity to U.S. government agents for acts regarding their interrogation practices. The Act also broadened the definition of “enemy combatant” to include anyone who offered “material support” to a person or persons engaged in hostilities against the U.S., enabling them to be held indefinitely in military detention regardless of whether or not they took any active role in any hostilities.

Tomorrow, May 1st, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights will be holding a Restore Habeus Day, to pressure lawmakers to restore the ability to file habeas corpus petitions to all prisoners in U.S. custody. Write or call your local congressperson and let them know that there should be no more Dilawars.

Sudan: Do Something Now, Because People Are Dying Every Day

My most recent article for the Inter Press Service, on the humanitarian disaster in the Sudanese region of Darfur and the Global Days for Darfur events in response to it, is out and can be read here.

An important aspect of the struggle to hold those aiding human rights abuses in Darfur accountable, one which is covered in my new article in detail, is the divestment movement currently targeting Fidelity, the largest mutual fund in the United Sates, and also the largest single shareholder of PetroChina Company, a subsidiary of the state-controlled China National Petroleum Corporation which owns a major stake in Sudan's national oil consortia. You can find out more about the divestment movement here.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The most shocking thing in India

As India, where I spent the early part of this year, strides into the 21st century witnessing as rapid an economic and social transformation as any country has seen in the last 25 years, one may fairly ask what is the biggest challenge facing this diverse, vibrant but often problematic mini-continent of 1.2 billion people. Would it be its historic enmity with neighboring Pakistan, which has lead to four wars between the two since 1947 and resulted in both countries exploding nuclear bombs to prove their dominance in their respective deserts in 1998? Would it be the shameless demagoguery of local politicians such as Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state, who used his position in 2002 to (at best) stand idly by as 2,000 (most Muslim) citizens of his state were slaughtered and is now being accused of involvement in extra-judicial police killings? Would it be the continuing conflict in Kashmir or the country's ongoing Maoist insurgency?

According to Jaipur’s Chief Judicial Magistrate Dinesh Gupta and solicitor Poonam Chand Bhandari, no. The greatest problem facing India is what you see in the photo, the over-enthusiastic embrace and kiss that American actor Richard Gere planted on Indian actress Shilpa Shetty during an AIDS awareness program in the Indian capital of New Delhi early this month. This week, at Bhandari’s request, Gupta’s court issued a warrant ordering the arrests of Gere and Shetty charging that their kiss was “highly sexually erotic” and “transgressed all limits of vulgarity and have the tendency to corrupt the society.”

I can only imagine the guffaws with which this order is being greeted among the Bollywood elite of Colaba and elsewhere in India’s cultural and economic capital of Bombay, but to me, the Gere/Shetty evokes an unwelcome sense of intolerant deju vu, recalling this past Valentine’s Day, when supporters of the xenophobic Shiv Sena party ran amok in Maharashtra state, trashing a shop that sold Valentine’s Day cards and setting much of the merchandise on fire before pummeling a large billboard put up by the Indian cell phone giant Hutch which advertised Valentine’s Day with a host of balloons. A Shiv Sena youth leader at the time explained that "Valentine’s Day-like celebrations are all western concepts and has been forced on our society for the commercial purpose. Shiv Sena will never allow the commercialization of Indian feelings.”

But one must ask if the Shiv Sainiks, Dinesh Gupta and Poonam Chand Bhandari have ever bothered to study their own country's history. As I have noted on this blog before, India, despite what some opportunistic politicians and judges might like to lead people to believe, is hardly any stranger to highly charged eroticism, nor to public displays of it, nor is the rather brief tangle between Gere and Shetty so much as a patch on India’s own highly developed sense of carnal tradition. This is the country, after all, that composed the Kama Sutra, a hefty chunk of which can perhaps best be described as an owner's manual for how to best use the body for sexual enjoyment and, indeed, describes the act of making love itself as a "divine union." Likewise, near the holy ghats of Varanasi (now Benares) resides the 800 year-old erotic temples at Khajuraho, which depict men and women in various acrobatic and highly explicit sexual poses and quite joyfully copulating, often with multiple partners.

Of course, puritanical busybodies are hardly a phenomenon particular to India but, given their relatively advanced levels of education, one thinks that the gentlemen from Jaipur could find something better to do with their time to engage in demagoguery about an incident that looks childish in comparison to India’s own highly-developed (and quite positive) zest for pleasures of the flesh.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Greener New York City?

On Sunday, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg unveiled a broad tapestry of 127 measures designed to create what he called “the first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city.” With admirable chutzpah while speaking at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, Mayor Bloomberg stated that the city would attempt to plant more than 1 million trees in the next 10 years, create a dual city-state fund of some $200 million to create a financing authority to oversee the completion of major mass-transit projects such as the Second Avenue subway, increasing the number of bike paths and cultivating mussels to cut down on pollution out of the rivers. More controversially, though, Mr. Bloomberg also proposed a three-year test of congestion pricing, which would represent a charge for $8 for cars and $21 for commercial trucks that enter Manhattan below 86th Street from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays (with any tolls paid deducted from the fee). Modeled on similar systems affected congested areas of London and Singapore, Mr. Bloomberg contends that congestion would be reduced and air quality improved.

"Moving to New York has always been an act of optimism," read the proposal, dubbed PlaNYC, in its unusually eloquent introduction. "To come here you must have faith in a better future, and courage to seek it out; you must trust the city to give you a chance, and know that you’ll take advantage when it does. You must believe in investing in your future with hard work and ingenuity. You must, in short, believe in accepting a challenge."

Though some parts of the plan strike me as easier to implement and more realistic than others, and though supporters of the process will have to convince the powers-that-be in Albany and Washington to sign on for sizable financial commitments (and add hundreds of millions of dollars to the proposed $57 billion budget New York City has for the next fiscal year,) Mr. Bloomberg's statement that “our economy is humming, our fiscal house is in order and our near-term horizon looks bright, if we don’t act now, when?” is a refreshing bit of reality injected into a political milieu that often seems to be awash in short-sighted politics-of-the-moment political ends. An American friend of mine in Rome writes to me that "city centers are renewing themselves without the bulldozer ( as in the 1960's) but this time with a paint brush, creativity and investment." On a glorious spring day here in New York, with the mercury set to climb into the mid 80s, who could not support the desire for a greener, healthier, more environmentally responsible New York City? With the city expected to gain about 1 million residents by 2030, now is indeed the time to look ahead to ensure its enduring viability is sustained for future generations.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Henri Petithomme’s hunger for justice

Almost lost in this week’s coverage of the new round of violence in Iraq and the latest violent explosion by a frustrated nerd with far too easy access to handguns, was the fact that Haitian-American U.S. Army veteran Henri Petithomme ended his 15 day hunger strike at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.

Drinking only liquids, Petithomme was protesting the detention of 101 Haitian migrants who landed at Hallandale Beach, about 15 miles north of downtown Miami, after three weeks at sea in a ramshackle sailboat . Petithomme’s fast also brought into sharp relief the hypocrisy of the so-called “wet foot-dry foot” policy, which as a general rule allows Cuban immigrants to stay in the U.S. to pursue residency once they touch soil (as opposed to being interdicted at sea), though the fate that awaits the vast majority of Haitians is either a direct ticket straight back to Haiti, or imprisonment at a “detention” center. Petithomme has said that he hopes that the U.S. will give temporary legal status to Haitians already in the country. Having reported myself on a heart-wrenching landing of more than two hundred Haitians onto a major Miami causeway on 29 October 2002 - where people aboard an overloaded steamer hemmed in by the U.S. Coast Guard jumped overboard and begged passing motorists to give them rides away - I have long supported changes in U.S. immigration policy vis-à-vis Haitians arriving in the United States. One of South Florida’s U.S. Congressman, Kendrick B. Meek, to his credit, has been leading the call for fairer treatment of Haitians in this regard.

On a different note, next week will mark the "Global Days for Darfur," events around the world from April 23rd-30th to call attention to the escalating violence in Darfur region of Sudan and the continued failure of the international community to adequately respond to the crisis. Including rallies, readings, concerts, vigils and more, it will be week that should involve all people of conscience. More can be learned about the programs in various cities here.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Planet India: Where prosperity and poverty collide

My review of Asia Society fellow Mira Kamdar's highly interesting new book, Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming the World, appears in today's Miami Herald and can be read here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Literary Icon for "Les Dammés de la Terre"

My article on the centenary of the masterful Haitian author Jacques Roumain has been published by the Inter Press Service today. It can be read here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Équipe haïtienne does it again

While it may seem that Haitians may sometimes have little to cheer about, one group of individuals who have been gladdening the hearts of those in that Caribbean country thus far this year have been Haiti’s national football teams. On Sunday, a Haitian team followed up on the country's Caribbean Cup victory in January by “pulverizing” El Salvador (in the words of Radio Kiskeya) 3:0 in Honduras, thus paving the way for the Haitian team’s first appearance in the FIFA Tournament since the 1974 World Cup. Haitian football fans recall with pride the Haitian team’s performance that year and, in particular, Manno Sanon’s brilliant playing which put Haiti in the lead in its match against Italy in the finals, albeit for only six minutes.

A tip of the hat goes to Herold Junior Charles, Normil Valdo, Jean Francis Fabien Vorbe and the entire Haitian team for showing the world the meaning of true heart. Ayibobo!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Remember Gujarat

Five years ago this spring, in the India state of Gujarat, something dark and terrible took place that appears to have passed from the world’s consciousness and conscience with little long-lasting impression, swept away in the tide of violence and blood emanating daily from other parts of the world, chiefly Iraq.

In Gujarat, on 27 February 2002, 59 people were killed when a fire swept through several compartments of the Sabarmati Express train as it was returning with Hindu religious pilgrims from the town of Ayodhya. Ayodhya itself, some readers will recall, was where, in December 1992, the destruction of a 500-year-old Mughal-era mosque by Hindu zealots set off spiraling riots around India and, particularly in the country’s economic capital, Bombay, riots that, by early 1993, had left more than 2,000 dead, the majority of them Muslims targeted by Hindu mobs. In March 1993, in what is seen as a response by Muslim extremists, 13 bombs exploded nearly simultaneously around Bombay, killing 257 people.

So when that fire - a tragedy that an inquiry committee lead by Justice U.C. Banerjee concluded in early 2005 was an accident - swept through the Sabarmati Express, it carried with it not only the heat of oxidation but also the scorching power of terrible history.

Between February 28 and March 2 2002, Human Rights Watch later concluded, “thousands of attackers descended on Muslim neighborhoods, clad in saffron scarves and khaki shorts, the signature uniform of Hindu nationalist groups, and armed with swords, sophisticated explosives, and gas cylinders. They were guided by voter lists and printouts of addresses of Muslim-owned properties-information obtained from the local municipality.” Some 2,000 people, again the vast majority of them Muslims, were slain, and some 100,000 were left homeless.

But there is more. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and a member of then then-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with no evidence, claimed publicly at the time that the killings were an “organized terrorist attack" and threw the Gujarat state government's support behind a call for a general strike to protest the deaths. Even more pointedly, Gujarat’s state police were under instructions from the Modi administration not to act firmly against anyone participating in attacks against Gujarat's Muslim population. Human Rights Watch wrote that “the groups most directly involved in the violence against Muslims include the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP), the Bajrang Dal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that heads the Gujarat state government.” An account of the destruction in some detail can be found in Asia Society fellow Mira Kamdar’s new book, Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming the World (Scribner). The Indian journalist Dilip D'Souza has likewise been remembering Gujarat's carnage in frequent postings on his blog from Bombay.

What, one may ask, was the official sanction against Narendra Modi (who continues to make speeches in Gujarat fanning anti-Muslim sentiment) and his subordinates for their role in the slayings of so many of their fellow citizens? Was Modi relived of his post, hauled before a tribunal, punished and sanctioned and sent to prison?

The United States revoked Modi's tourist visa, citing the provisions of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act and the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 which forbid foreign government officials who are "responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom" from being eligible for a visa to the U.S., and later denied him a diplomatic visa, as well. Mr. Modi is apparently still a welcome visitor in Europe, though.

And in India itself, where the government of Prime Minster Manmohan Singh frequently proclaims his administration’s commitment to the rule of law and credentials as the safeguard of India’s secular democracy? Silence. A silence, as the Haitian radio journalist Jean Dominique, slain seven years ago this month, might say, to awaken the dead, the dead of Gujarat still awaiting justice.

Many years earlier, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, surveying the often pointless destruction of the Irish civil war, penned the following lines in his poem, The Stare's Nest by My Window, which seem like an eloquent meditation with which to conclude this posting.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
no clear fact to be discerned…
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Five years on, remember Gujarat.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

N'ap sonje w, Jean Do

Seven years ago today, on 3 April 2000, in the courtyard of Radio Haiti-Inter on the Route de Delmas in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, journalist and free man Jean-Léopold Dominique, and Radio Haiti's caretaker, Jean-Claude Louissaint, were gunned down, and Haiti lost one of the most powerful advocates for a free press and the enfranchisement of the peasant majority that the nation had ever seen.

In the years that followed, I watched as a young, Paris-educated barrister named Claudy Gassant fought against the weight of a corrupt state and a 200-year tradition of impunity, to try and bring justice to the slain men. During the first tenure of Haiti's president René Préval, until 7 February 2001, Gassant was supplied with security, vehicles ad other tools that he needed to prosecute the investigation. Upon the installation of the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2001, all of that was peeled away until Gassant was left virtually defenseless. Even before, he had reason to be afraid. His requests to interview then-senator Dany Toussaint were met with scorn by Haiti's senate, controlled by Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas political party, of which Toussaint was a member, with then-senate president Yvon Neptune dismissing Gassant as “a small judge that cannot summon someone from such a great body” and threatening to launch an investigation into his “exact motives.” In early 2001, Police nationale d’Haïti (PNH) assistant traffic chief Evens Sainturné, a former bodyguard of Aristide’s, demanding that Gassant return an armored vehicle that had been given to the investigation by Préval, and on 30 January of that year, driving through Port-au-Prince, Gassant’s car was cut off by a vehicle full of armed men belonging to Millien Rommage, a Fanmi Lavalas deputy who brandished weapons at Gassant from the windows of their vehicle and shouted that they could kill him anytime they wanted. Finally, in January 2002, Gassant fled into exile in the United States. At the time, Gassant, the staff of Radio Haiti-Inter and now-PNH chief Mario Andresol all charged the Aristide government with having intentionally blocked the investigation into the murder.

Over the years, I got to know something of Dominique's widow, Michele Montas, who bravely soldiered on running Radio Haiti alone until a Christmas 2002 attempt on her own life resulted in the death of her bodyguard, Maxime Seide, and forced her as well to flee into exile in the United States. She is now the spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon here in New York. Her courage, and the courage of the entire staff of Radio Haiti to soldier on under such conditions served as a great example to me.

Now, in 2007, Aristide is gone and Préval is once again president. Claudy Gassant has returned to Haiti, and is the chief magistrate of Port-au-Prince. But alas, as the press freedom group Reporters sans frontières said in a statement today, "the investigation that was relaunched two years ago has still not yielded any results and impunity continues to prevail in this case." Of the suspects two - Dymsley "Ti Lou" Milien and Jeudi "Guimy" Jean--Daniel - are said to hiding among the gangs of the capital's Martissant neighborhood, where I reported from this past summer, while others have fled abroad.

Jean Dominique and Jean-Claude Louissaint deserve better.

I close today with some lines from a radio broadcast Dominique made shortly before his murder, where he denounced the destructive violence that was tearing apart his country and directly addressed those who were trying to intimidate him:

I have no other weapon than my journalist’s pen! And my microphone and my unquenchable faith as a militant for true change! Over Radio Haiti, there is a silence to awaken the dead, the five thousand dead of the coup d’ètat; this is the truth that must emerge from this insignificant exercise in intimidation today. This is the truth that it is right to speak of this morning, the truth of a free man. Earlier I cited another free man, Laclos. I close with Shakespeare: “The truth will always make the face of the devil blush!”

Long live a free press. Viv Ayiti.