Asim Qureshi discusses the torture of Ali al-Marri, who was held in detention in the USA for 13 years.
He argues that discussions of torture should include the multifaceted forms of coercion that prisoners are subject to, alongside the major violence that often accompanies this.
This article is published as part of CAGE’s new series of expert essays ‘Perspectives on the War On Terror‘.
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Ali al-Marri (right)
Over the last few years, I have written about the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri – a man who was detained on US soil under systematic solitary confinement for 13 years.
It was my privilege to have spent a large part of the last four years investigating this case, sitting with al-Marri at length and understanding the complexity of the way he had been harmed.
Part of the process of investigation, was to review close to 30,000 pages of documentation from the files that had been disclosed by the US government.
Whether or not the US authorities thought that someone would be bothered to read each line of these documents, the reality is, for us the story of the torture has been in the lines of these details.
Among the disclosed material, were logs kept by the guards of the Segregated Housing Unit of the Charleston Naval Brig where al-Marri was detained – these logs ran into the thousands of pages and in many instances told a story of what Ali al-Marri’s confinement looked like on a fifteen-minute to fifteen-minute basis.
This close logging and record keeping reminded me of what Hannah Arendt wrote in her ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ that in fact what shocked her most about the Holocaust, was its banality, the everyday administration of injustice that was carried out by all those involved.
Yes, we must acknowledge layers of complicity, but there is something about the way the records are kept, and the detailed lines of record keeping that horrify at the way al-Marri’s torture was carried out and catalogued.
Although there is much to write about, and perhaps there are more egregious examples of his torture, but there is one aspect to the case that really brought home the micro-efficiency of al-Marri’s abuse.
It is in the detail of this consistent and calculated harm that I want to reframe the torture debate, which so often concentrates on headline torture techniques like ‘waterboarding’ and much less so on torture as a tool of coercion.
Confrontation with the prison guards
During the middle of May and early June 2004, Ali al-Marri came into confrontation with the prison authorities, first over his denial of the Qur’an and halal food, and then after with the temperature in his cell. In a document dated 2 August 2004, the following events were noted:
“First, in late May, 052 [al-Marri’s prison number] started a hunger strike.
After five days, 052 was told that medical monitoring will have to take place.
If he resisted, he would be strapped to a back brace and blood and urine would be extracted.
The idea of having urine extracted via a catheter appeared to concern him – that night he ended his hunger strike.”
Among the disclosed documentation, the frequently updated prison Pass Down Logs reveal relatively little of this period and exchange, however another set of logs called the Electronic Logs (ELs) help to provide details on a fifteen-minute basis that would otherwise not be known.
The incident begins on 29 May 2004 at 3:00 pm when a visual tour of al-Marri’s cell finds him lying on the floor:
“EC#2 [enemy combatant number 2] was laying on floor.
When Tango 2 approached and told him to get off the floor EC#2 stated it was cold.
Tango 2 then tried to fix the temperature problem, but was unsuccessful.
Upon informing EC#2 that he was unable to fix it EC#2 stated “Now you are just messing with me.”
Tango 2 then told him to get off the floor, then EC#2 ignored him and went right back to the floor.”
Over the next two days, the complaints of al-Marri regarding the temperature would continue, these are only a snapshot of their presentation:
|05/29/04||5:41:14 PM||TANGO 2 TOLD EC TWO TO PICK HIS BLANKETS UP OFF THE FLOOR, EC TWO REFUSED STATING “IT IS VERY COLD, I CANNOT SLEEP THERE (ON RACK).”|
|05/29/04||5:42:33 PM||TANGO 2 TOOK BLANKETS FROM EC TWO PER ORDER OF MR. ” “.|
|05/29/04||6:00:02 PM||VISUAL TOUR, EC TWO SECURE, EC CRAWLED UNDER RACK TO HIDE FROM CAMERA.|
|05/29/04||6:02:24 PM||MA2 FESCENMYER TOLD EC TWO TO COME OUT FROM UNDER RACK, EC REFUSED STATING “IT IS VERY COLD.”|
|05/29/04||8:38:14 PM||EC TWO CELL TEMPATURE TURNED UP, EC AGREED TO COME OUT FROM UNDER HIS RACK.|
|05/29/04||10:07:21 PM||EC TWO GIVEN BLANKETS BY TANGO 2.|
|05/30/04||1:16:00 AM||EC TWO SECURED IN CELL 112.||EC TWO WAS LYING UNDER RACK OUT OF VEIW OF CAMRERA [sic] AND EYE SIGHT OF 509 CHECKS.MOVED TO 112 PER ORDER OF MACS ” “.
PER ORDER OF MACS” ” EC 2 WILL BE MOVED TO CELL 112 IN THE DAY AND BACK TO CELL 119 AT TAPS UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE
As can be seen from a selection of the logs above, instead of providing Ali al-Marri with the opportunity to find some warmth, instead they took his blankets away at 5:42pm, only then to turn up the temperature 3 hours later and return blankets an hour and a half after that.
“The torture debate so often concentrates on headline torture techniques like ‘waterboarding’ and much less so on torture as a tool of coercion.”
The following day, at 1:15pm al-Marri is taken out of cell 119 and moved into cell 112. The officers leave a note as above that he will be kept in cell 112 throughout the day and only returned to 119 at night.
The most significant entry, however, appears on 30 May 2004 at 10:05 pm, when al-Marri requests his blankets and pillows be removed from his room due to his frustrations over the cold cell. Although the Department of Defense and FBI team do not appear to be present during this time, the logs confirm that they were systematically directing the abuse against him:
“Lt Col Ramos and his people want to play games moving him in a cold cell.”1
This log presents itself as one of the clearer indications that all of the abuse being carried out against al-Marri and the games being played with him were part of an orchestrated campaign to coerce him into compliance.
The following logs highlight the lengths to which the administration was willing to push him:
|05/30/04||10:41:02 PM||EC TWO RECIEVED [sic] 2 BLANKETS AND 1 PILLOW.||EC NOTICED AFTER SHOVING HIS PILLOW AND BLANKETS OUT OF CELL, THAT WE CLOSED THE COLD AIR VENT ABOVE HE [sic] RACK THAT HE WAS COMPLAINING ABOUT.|
The Pass Down Logs provide a brief insight into this period later in the day, but without any reference to the logs in the Electronic Brig Logs – it is one of the reasons why the logs must be read together:
1741 Tango 2 told EC 2 to pick up his blankets and pillow up off the floor. EC refused stating it was very cold “I cannot sleep up there” (rack)
1742 Tango 2 took blankets and pillow from EC per order of Mr Seymour.
1744 Tango 2 placed meal in cell tray under door
1745 EC pushed meal tray under door
1747 Tango 2 told EC tray must stay in his cell for 20 min. EC “refused”.
1748 Tango 2 put meal tray back in EC’s cell
1749 EC pushed tray under door
1750 Tango 2 put meal back in cell 119. Tango 2 blocked cell door w/his feet. EC dumped food in toilet and flushed it.
1751 EC pushed tray under door when Tango 2 left
1752 EC hiding in cell under camera
1800 EC crawled under rack to hide from camera
1802 MA2 Fesenmyer told EC#2 to come out from under his rack. EC refused stating “its very cold”
1805 Mr Seymour stated he wanted five minute checks on EC#2 until further notice.
By 18:53, the guards turn the temperature of the cell up, and al-Marri is willing to go back to sleeping on his rack.
One question that might be asked based on the logs, is whether the Commanding Officer, Major Swift, was aware of the games that were being ordered by the DoD and FBI agents. On 30 May 2004, the following reference is either a genuine question of concern by the CO, or an attempt to cover the concerted efforts to harm him:
“By order of CO: When medical comes on board tomorrow to check EC Two, medical personnel is to stand in cell #119 for a few minutes and assess the temperature of the cell.
When this is done it must be logged in the computer whether the temperature is too cold, too hot, or just fine.”
Despite the Pass Down Logs claiming that the cell temperature was acceptable, on 31 May 2004, al-Marri made it clear that he would continue his hunger strike out of protest of his treatment. Despite the claims of the log, he continued to complain of the cold in his cell, attempting further methods of controlling the cold air:
|06/1/04||12:09:00 PM||EC TWO ATTEMPTING TO PUT HIS UNDERWEAR INTO VENT.|
|06/1/04||12:06:59 PM||EC TWO TOOK OFF HIS UNDERWEAR AND PUT IN ON THE VENT, THEN PUT BACK ON HIS COVERALLS.|
|06/1/04||12:09:00 PM||EC TWO ATTEMPTING TO PUT HIS UNDERWEAR INTO VENT.|
|06/1/04||12:11:00 PM||EC TWO WAS TOLD BY MA1 ” ” TO STOP TRYING TO PUT HIS UNDERWEAR INTO THE VENT. EC TWO THEN STOPPED WHAT HE WAS DOING AND THREW HIS UNDERWEAR UBDER [sic] THE CELL DOOR AND SAID “GIVE THESE TO MR. ” “.”|
Video of al-Marri hitting his own head and removing his underwear to shove into vents, 1 June 2004
Watching the video makes for extremely difficult viewing in part because you can see the impact of the games that are being played by the DoD and FBI agents with al-Marri – their torture of him is not something that takes place in extreme ways constantly, but rather through the manipulation of his environment until his mental health deteriorates in harmful ways.
By 2 June 2004, Ali al-Marri is more willing to work with the administration, but only after a protracted few days of disagreement with the prison administration that seemed to have been led by Lt Col Jose Ramos.
“Ali’s torture is not something that takes place in extreme ways constantly, but through the manipulation of his environment until his mental health deteriorates in harmful ways.”
The real extent and degree of these tactics in order to coerce the compliance of Ali al-Marri were revealed in a leaked Defence Intelligence Agency document from 14 June 2004:
“In an early attempt to induce al-Marri to cooperate, the team decided to offer him a copy of the Koran.
This was not considered a major issue because SJA Fleet Forces Command had previously agreed the Koran could be used as an incentive.
Al-Marri responded to this gesture by making further demands, to include a prayer rug and notification of prayer times.
In view of Al-Marri’s reaction, and with the concurrence of the Consultant, the team requested that the Koran be taken away from al-Marri.
This was done to extinguish al-Marri’s overblown sense of entitlement.
The team has requested that other items be withdrawn from al-Marri, to include one of his blankets and a pillow.
All requests by the team to withhold or withdraw incentive items from al-Marri have been vetted through DH GC, Fleet Forces Command SJA, and JFCOM SJA.”
This tactic of inducing his compliance was previously already stated by the interrogation team and fits as part of a wider plan to destabilise al-Marri from the very beginning of his detention:
“Because Al-Marri had never been interviewed in a controlled environment, it was also necessary to extinguish his expectations of due process and entitlements in order to induce compliance.
This was accomplished by removing all privilege items, such as his mattress and copy of the Koran.”
The harm that Ali Al-Marri was forced to endure over the course of thirteen years in a US prison are by no means summarised in this incident relating to the use of temperature control in al-Marri’s cell.
What this incident does show us, however, is the cruel and calculated way in which his environment was controlled in order to cause him harm.
The coldness of the cell was magnified by the sparce confinement conditions, with a metal rack without a mattress serving only to exacerbate the difficulties of his period of torture.
The lines of detailed control remind us of how important it is that we never succumb to thinking of torture in a singular way (that it is about extreme forms of beating and violence) – but rather how any form of torture, no matter how light, when systematically used, can have devastating consequences.
Find out more about Ali al-Marri’s case in our report Torture in America: FBI & DOD torture of Ali al-Marri on the Charleston Naval Brig
You can also find documentation on Ali’s torture and detention conditions in this dossier.
Image courtesy of Unsplash/marcin777
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