Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Making Stalin Proud

In the 1930s, that great legal innovator Joseph Stalin introduced the show trial. The accused would stand up in court and willingly, even eagerly, confess to the most fantastical crimes. At the first great show trial, in 1936, Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and other former senior Communist party members admitted to being members of a terrorist organization. They said they had plotted to kill Stalin and other Soviet leaders. In the following years, as Stalin's purges picked up steam, show trials featured increasingly incredible stories, usually involving the accused admitting to being agents of Western imperialism.

What made men confess to things that were unlikely, sometimes impossible and usually unsupported by other evidence? Torture. Sleep deprivation, beatings, and threats against their wives and children. To stop the pain, you had to confess to whatever it was that the interrogators wanted to hear. And then you had to get up in court and willingly confess to it all over again.

The trial of Omar Khadr has been called a travesty of justice, a violation of the rule of law, a kangaroo court and lots of other things beside. But what it really was, was a show trial.

On the main charge, "murder in violation of the laws of war" (a crime that doesn't appear to even exist in international law, given that combatants who kill other soldiers in combat are not violating the laws of war), the chief evidence against the then-15-year-old child soldier was his own confession. And that confession, made years ago and long since recanted, was obtained under conditions that any normal human being would describe as torture.


This week, Omar Khadr was offered the following choice: plead guilty, or face two different routes to life in prison. He could go to trial, and thanks to a confession that would be laughed out of any real court of law, he'd probably be convicted. But even if the court somehow found him not guilty, the U.S. reserved the right to detain him indefinitely as an enemy combatant. The only sure way to get out of jail early was to tell his interrogators what they wanted to hear.


On Monday, Khadr was even forced to cop to other crimes, including the killing of two Afghan soldiers, something he wasn't even charged with, and for which the prosecution appears to have had no evidence. And, in a nice touch that Stalin would have appreciated, Khadr appears to have also been forced to sign away his right to sue his jailors for the various forms of deprivation and abuse that he was subject to. In court on Monday, Col. Patrick Parrish repeatedly asked Khadr to confirm that he was agreeing to these terms willingly, that he really, truly, sincerely wanted to plead guilty all of his own accord. Khadr said yes.


The original communist torture techniques, which for a time inspired the standard operating procedures at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo and the secret black sites, were not designed to elicit truth. They were designed to produce false confessions: That was the whole point. They were designed to force people to say what interrogators wanted to hear -- yes, I am a capitalist stooge, yes I am a Trostkyite, yes I am a terrorist.

And now Guantanamo's very first military tribunal has its first guilty verdict, thanks to those methods of coercion first perfected for the Soviet Bloc show trial.

  National Post

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