I expressed my disgust in this post that the CIA set up secret dungeons in, for example, the outskirts of Bangkok, and then tortured people to death in joint ventures with dictators, lied about it, liaised with Hollywood in the making of a propaganda movie suggesting (falsely) that Bin Laden’s extra-judicial execution was possible only because of intelligence tortured out of people, and then determinedly undermined the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence investigation, the great majority of whose report remains censored.
There was an excellent ‘4 Corners’ last week about America’s torture programme, which all lawyers in Australia should watch (it’s available here for a limited time). It features extensive interviews with the CIA’s lawyer John Rizzo, who travelled to several of these illegal dungeons at the ‘black sites’ and reassured CIA operatives that the torture they were engaged in was perfectly legal. If there is a question which it should be a cinch for any lawyer to answer otherwise than unequivocally negatively, it is ‘Is waterboarding torture?’ (The late Christopher Hitchens’s brilliant ‘Vanity Fair’ essay on the topic is here. He tried it. But, as he pointed out in this television interview, the US already had a position on the question, having several times sought the death penalty for the waterboarding of American troops). It also discloses the enormous amounts of money paid to two psychologists who shambolically masterminded the torture (Shame!). One also gets to see and hear the Senate Committee’s Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat and former Mayor of San Francisco (pictured) who was at the forefront of her Committee’s dogedness in uncovering the truth about the CIA’s torture, its incompetence, and its uselesness. I was so pleased to hear that, like me, she walked out of Zero Dark Thirty during its opening torture scenes.
Now an apparently thoroughly respectable Australian named John Nicholls who used to work in the concentration camp up on Nauru has given evidence to an Australian Senate enquiry into abuses on Nauru that Wilson Security Guards employed by the government tortured refugees by waterboarding them. He said he saw refugees coughing up water after leaving guarded tents, and that guards bragged openly about waterboarding. I must say that I find these allegations astonishing, and difficult to believe. Waterboarding involves drowning the subject, but stopping the drowning before death occurs. All one needs to waterboard is a bucket, a cup, a rag and sufficient restraints to incline the subject’s body such that gravity will take the water poured into his nose down to his lungs. But it is a particularly sadistic thing to do just to punish a refugee or assert control. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that other dreadful things have happened on Nauru, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that an official culture of punishing refugees, secrecy and lack of oversight, and extremely poor selection of guards has resulted in such an atrocity. Mr Nicholls does not look like a fruitloop in the photo in The Guardian any more than previous apparently plausible ex-concentration camp worker whistleblowers did (think Steve Kilburn, Rod St George and Mark Isaacs). Furthermore, I am far from convinced that Australians were not present during the torture of Australian citizens such as Mamdou Habib, whom the government did pay a large sum of money to when he sued it. There has never been an official government enquiry so far as I know in relation to Australian involvement in the torture of David Hicks.
Perhaps Mr Nicholls is mistaken. Perhaps the guards were bragging about something they did not do, and the refugees were faking it or coughing up water for some other reason than that they were waterboarded. Perhaps Mr Nicholls is telling porkies in the course of a legal dispute with his former employer. Certainly, statements that he personally witnessed waterboarding ascribed to him have since been clarified by him in his evidence to the Committee. Here’s the transcript of the Committee hearing in question; judge for yourself.
But if an Australian has tortured a refugee in a concentration camp, well, I can’t find words for it. I would be apoplectic. It is one thing to torture a bloke whom you convince yourself may have information which will prevent another 9/11 and who was certainly closely associated with the missing mastermind of that attack. It is quite another to tolerate the torture of a person who is not alleged to have done anything wrong and who is incarcerated only because it is politically advantageous. Therefore, what is definitely disturbing is the government’s response. Tony Abbott declared on 16 August that the allegations were ‘absolutely false’ without explaining how he actually knows or without waiting for Mr Nichols to give evidence to the Senate Committee, and Peter Dutton’s response to the evidence once it was given was to label the Senate Committee a ‘dodgy kangaroo court’. If the Committee is a ‘dodgy kangaroo court’, which would be surprising given that it is an organ of the Parliament, then surely a judicial enquiry into this allegation should be considered, just in case things have got so bad in Nauru that, almost unbelievably, what Mr Nicholls suggests happened (or even something not dissimilar) actually happened. I await the Committee’s report on Monday.