On the similarities between torturees' testimony and torturers' testimony

As part of the bucket defence* they are deploying in response to Richard Colvin’s testimony on allegations of torture routinely inflicted on prisoners handed over by Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities, Conservative MPs are arguing that these prisoners were, after all, trained to tell tall tales about horrible treatment to attract sympathy. This is a standard argument made by torture apologists. It is probably true sometimes.

But there is a previous, exhaustively documented set of cases, not directly related to the case of Canadian-captured prisoners in Kandahar, where outrageous claims from prisoners were closely corroborated with official reports of outrageous behaviour from their captors. I refer, of course, to the International Committee of the Red Cross report on torture at the Guantanamo prison in Cuba. When I wrote in March about Mark Danner’s 13,000-word account of the ICRC report, Maclean’s carried a world-weary, oh-you-silly-goose letter from some dork along precisely these lines: Oh, poor Wells, don’t you understand that these prisoners are bad people, they make stuff up, you can’t trust them any farther than you can throw them.

And then an interesting thing happened. The U.S. Department of Justice released detailed memos written by and for the Guantanamo prisoners’ American captors which closely matched the prisoners’ own accounts. (A summary of the techniques for which U.S. officials sought a legal fig leaf is here; Danner’s authoritative account of the ICRC report is here.)

As I say, the fact that something happened over there does not mean it happened over here. I mean only to show that, in several documented cases where prisoners claimed to have been stripped, slapped, starved, slammed against walls and made to believe they were about to drown, their captors had in fact sought permission to strip, slap, starve, slam them against walls and make them believe they were about to drown.


* A bucket defence is a scattershot defence against an allegation of wrongdoing. The individual parts of the defence may have no relation to one another and may even be mutually contradictory. So, say I borrow a bucket from you and return it with a hole in the bottom. You get angry. I respond: (a) There is no hole; (b) It was there when you loaned the bucket to me; (c) I didn’t put the hole there, Jimmy did; (d) I put the hole there by accident. So the Conservatives are arguing that the prisoners’ testimony is a lie; that Colvin is reporting hearsay; that he buried his reports so nobody could have found them; that prisons are dangerous places everywhere; that Colvin is an unreliable fellow. The goal of a bucket defence is not to suggest a single, coherent, rebuttal of a claim. It is to throw up such a fog of confusion and contradiction that the entire process is discredited or spectators are discouraged from continuing to pay attention.

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