Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

"Newsweek on Afghanistan,"May 23, 2005.

Last Wednesday the Nelson Daily News ran a story under the headline, "White House says US suffered lasting damage from Newsweek article."

Early morning KCR listeners will remember that Newsweek article. Amy Goodman covered it on Democracy Now!

Newsweek said in its May 9 edition that "a knowledgeable government source" had revealed that a military report on abuse at Guantanamo Bay said interrogators flushed at least one copy of the Koran down a toilet in a bid to make detainees talk.

Protests in Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan and Indonesia followed demonstrations across much of Afghanistan (10 of 34 provinces) in the days following the publication. At least 16 people were killed and dozens injured after clashes with police.

Shortly before issuing a complete retraction, Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker told Reuters "As to whether anything like this [i.e., flushing a copy of the Koran down the toilet] happened, we just don't know...We're not saying it absolutely happened but we can't say that it absolutely didn't happen either" (Morgan Koran May 16 05).

"Newsweek said the source later told the magazine he could not be certain he had seen an account of the Koran incident in the military report and that it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts" (Morgan Koran May 16 05).

Those "other investigative documents or drafts" do not appear in other versions including the Canadian Press story that appeared on page 2 of the Daily News. But that didn't prevent other news organizations, including the Washington Post, the Independent, the Guardian, Daily Mirror, The Nation from doing some digging of their own.

Here is a well-documented sampling:

"Contrary to White House spin, the allegations of religious desecration at Guantanamo such as those described by Newsweek on 9 May 2005 are common among ex-prisoners and have been widely reported outside the United States. Several former detainees at the Guantanamo and Bagram airbase prisons have reported instances of their handlers sitting or standing on the Koran, throwing or kicking it in toilets, and urinating on it

One such incident (during which the Koran was thrown into a pile and stepped on) prompted a hunger strike among Guantanamo detainees in March 2002. Regarding this, the New York Times in a 1 May 2005, article interviewed a former detainee, Nasser Nijer Naser al-Mutairi, who said the protest ended with a senior officer delivering an apology to the entire camp. And the Times reports: "A former interrogator at Guantanamo, in an interview with the Times, confirmed the accounts of the hunger strikes, including the public expression of regret over the treatment of the Korans." (Neil A. Lewis and Eric Schmitt, "Inquiry Finds Abuses at Guantanamo Bay," New York Times, May 1, 2005, p. 35.)

The hunger strike and apology story is also confirmed by another former detainee, Shafiq Rasul, interviewed by the UK Guardian in 2003 (James Meek, "The People the Law Forgot," The Guardian, December 3, 2003, p. 1.) It was also confirmed by former prisoner Jamal al-Harith in an interview with the Daily Mirror (Rosa Prince and Gary Jones, "My Hell in Camp X-ray World Exclusive," Daily Mirror, March 12, 2004.)

The toilet incident was reported in the Washington Post in a 2003 interview with a former detainee from Afghanistan:

"Ehsannullah, 29, said American soldiers who initially questioned him in Kandahar before shipping him to Guantanamo hit him and taunted him by dumping the Koran in a toilet. It was a very bad situation for us, said Ehsannullah, who comes from the home region of the Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar. We cried so much and shouted, Please do not do that to the Holy Koran. (Marc Kaufman and April Witt, "Out of Legal Limbo, Some Tell of Mistreatment," Washington Post, March 26, 2003.)

Also citing the toilet incident is testimony by Asif Iqbal, a former Guantanamo detainee who was released to British custody in March 2004 and subsequently freed without charge:

"The behaviour of the guards towards our religious practices as well as the Koran was also, in my view, designed to cause us as much distress as possible. They would kick the Koran, throw it into the toilet and generally disrespect it." (Center for Constitution Rights, Detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, August 4, 2004.)

The claim that US troops at Bagram airbase prison in Afghanistan urinated on the Koran was made by former detainee Mohamed Mazouz, a Moroccan, as reported in the Moroccan newspaper, La Gazette du Maroc. (Abdelhak Najib, "Les Americains pissaient sur le Coran et abusaient de nous sexuellement", April 11, 2005). An English translation is available on the Cage Prisoners web site.

Tarek Derghoul, another of the British detainees, similarly cites instances of Koran desecration in an interview with

Desecration of the Koran was also mentioned by former Guantanamo detainee Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost and reported by the BBC in early May 2005. (Haroon Rashid, "Ex-inmates Share Guantanamo Ordeal," May 2, 2005.)

The Washington Post reports that "The Pentagon issued ... rules on Jan. 19, 2003, requiring that the Koran not be placed on 'the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet, or dirty/wet areas'" (Leonnig Reported before May 18 05).

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Carl Eichenberry, believed the rioting was not linked to the Newsweek article but was "more tied up in the political process" in Afghanistan.

Human Rights Watch put a finer point on it saying that it was US policies that had inflicted the greatest amount of damage and that "US interrogators have repeatedly sought to offend the religious beliefs of Muslim detainees as part of their interrogation strategy, Human Rights Watch said today" (HRW May 19 05).

Paul Craig Roberts stated that " this point the only way to restore America's reputation would be to impeach and convict President Bush for intentionally deceiving Congress and the American people in order to start a war of aggression against a country that posed no threat to the US America can redeem itself only by holding Bush accountable" (). is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former assistant secretary of the US Treasury.

This is an American story in an American magazine about an American fiasco. Hearing it, we are reminded that there are still Canadian troops and aid workers in Afghanistan and wonder about their well-being.

On Monday, Defence Minister Bill Graham said that Canada would be raising the number of of troops it has in Afghanistan by about 1,250 to help boost security and rebuilding efforts.

"Last year Canada had 2,000 troops in the NATO-run International Security Assistance Force in Kabul but most have now left the country" (Canada Reuters May 16 05).

Graham told reporters that a 250-member reconstruction team would be sent to Kandahar this August and would stay in Afghanistan for around 18 months.

"Canada will close its base in Kabul and transfer troops and equipment to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. In early 2006 a battle group of 700 soldiers and a brigade headquarters unit comprising 300 personnel will be sent to Kandahar for up to a year.

Canadians I spoke to often seek to update information they have about other aspects of life in Afghanistan: the opium trade, human rights, the safety of humanitarian aid workers and civilians. TV news and the national press don't offer much information except for stories like the replay about who is doing irreparable damage to the US reputation in the Daily News.

On the opium trade, I guess we all know that poppy culture has rebounded since the demise of the Taliban. Just last week, "Gunmen ambushed a vehicle and killed six Afghans on Thursday, including two who worked for a US firm and were transporting the body of a co-worker killed in an attack a day earlier...

The US firm is Chemonics. They were carrying out a project to teach farmers about alternatives to growing poppies for opium or heroin.

"Chemonics, which receives US Agency for International Development funding for its Afghan work, told the US embassy in Kabul it is withdrawing personnel from southern Afghanistan and reviewing the security situation" (Ambush May 19 05).

Earlier this month, a new report by CARE USA and the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office said that "Escalating violence is impeding the ability of humanitarian workers to deliver aid and to implement urgently needed reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan... The report...was released just days after the bodies of three women were found in a northern province, one of whom was said to have been killed because she worked for an aid agency" (Insecurity CARE May 5 05).

Last year at just about this time, five MSF volunteers were killed in the northwestern province of Badghis.

"Their murders, and the Afghan government's subsequent failure to respond adequately, led MSF to close its programs in Afghanistan after 25 years of providing humanitarian assistance to victims of the conflict there.

Two weeks ago, an MSF press release took the Afghan government to task for its failure to act.

"In spite of many promises by the Afghan government, there have been no arrests and no prosecutions of those who ordered or carried out the attacks []it said]. The Afghan Ministry of Interior, which has responsibility for investigating and prosecuting this crime, has informed MSF that a local police commander is the prime suspect in the murders. The police commander had been removed from his post in the Qadis district of Badghis province prior to the killings, but the Ministry of Interior recently confirmed that he was reinstated despite the accusations against him" (MSF May 10 05).

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