Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Constitution’

After 500 years of progress, we’re still waterboarding people and stoning them to death for adultery

Posted by metaphorical on 19 February 2008

Q: Which is worse, adultery or witchcraft?

A: They are equally bad, and should both be punished by death.

That seems to be the news from the Arab world.

A couple of weeks ago, Amnesty International reported on two sisters that face execution by stoning in Iran. Does Iran really stone people to death? For adultery? The answer to both questions seems to be yes. A news report from last July, “Iran confirms man stoned to death,” describes just such a case.

In the case of the two women, Amnesty International seems at least as concerned about some of the legal niceities of the case. For example, there’s the double-jeopardy fact that the women were already convicted and sentenced to floggings and prison.

The five were tried in March 2007 and sentenced to flogging for “having illicit relations”; Zohreh also received five years’ imprisonment for forming ‘a centre of corruption’. But after the floggings were carried out, fresh charges of “committing adultery while being married” were brought against Zohreh and Azar Kabiri-niat. On 6 August 2007. Both were found guilty and were sentenced to death by stoning.

The witchcraft case comes from Saudi Arabia.

Saudis to Execute a Woman for Witchcraft


BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — A leading human rights group appealed to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Thursday to stop the execution of a woman accused of witchcraft and performing supernatural acts.

Besides sounding more appropriate to the middle ages than the 21st century, what the cases have in common is an appalling lack of due process.

A new lawyer representing the women told journalist Marjan Lagha’i that, “the case has fundamental problems, since a person can not be tried twice for the same crime. Yet these two sisters have been tried twice in the same case, and two sentences have been issued for them… the circumstances that are required to prove adultery – confession by the accused on four different occasions that can be corroborated by the testimony of four eyewitnesses to the alleged crime – are entirely absent, and there is absolutely no legal document in this case that a judge can use to issue a stoning sentence… Given that I view this sentence to be against the principles of Sharia, as well as the criminal laws [of Iran], I have filed an official objection, and I have asked that the Head of Judiciary review the case once again.”

To be sure, in a case of witchcraft, it’s hard to imagine what would actually count as due process.

“The fact that Saudi judges still conduct trials for unprovable crimes like ‘witchcraft’ underscores their inability to carry out objective criminal investigations,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Here in the U.S., we don’t stone people to death or kill them in any other way for adultery, but due process is still a bit of an issue for the Bush administration. And it’s come up in the context of yet another gruesome medieval practice — waterboarding, a favorite form of torture going back to the Spanish Inquisition.

Last week, in testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee, Steven Bradbury, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, made the case that waterboarding is not torture, at least, it’s not under the laws in effect when the CIA conducted waterboarding. As Muckraker reports:

The CIA’s use of waterboarding was legal and not torture, a Justice Deparment official argued this morning, because it was a “procedure subject to strict limitations and safeguards” that made it substantially different from historical uses of the technique by the Japanese and the Spanish Inquisition.

The question, in other words, is whether the “safeguards” and “strict limitations” make the American version of waterboarding something other than torture.

According to Malcolm Nance a former instructor at the Navy’s training program, they do not. Another Muckraker link quotes Nance as saying:

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

What’s needed to settle this dispute is some form of due process. In the U.S., that comes in the form of legislative oversight of the executive’s possibly overzealous questioning of prisoners.

The problem is, Bradbury won’t tell the House Judiciary what are the differences between American 21st century waterboarding, and the Spanish Inquisition’s. Bradbury’s reason is that the information is classified, even though the committee members have the highest possible security clearances, and even though, as Bradbury acknowledged, Congress has a Constitutional duty of oversight. The Muckraker story has a link to this YouTube video. The relevant exchange between Bradbury and NY representative Jerry Nadler comes a bit after the 5 minute mark.

Of course, there’s no comparison between actually stoning someone to death, and merely convincing them you’re drowning them. But drawing out subtle distinctions of “time limits” and “medical oversight” sounds a lot like Scholastic angel-pinhead-dancing more appropriate to 12th or 16th century Spain than modern-day America.

Of the witchcraft case, Human Rights Watch says it

underscores shortcomings in Saudi Arabia’s Islamic legal system in which rules of evidence are shaky, lawyers are not always present and sentences often depend on the whim of judges.

The video of Bradbury ducking Congressman Nadler’s questions equally looks to involve shaky rules of evidence and the whims of administration lawyers. That’s no way to call such a government “modern,” whether it’s in Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the U.S.. And calling ours a “Justice” Department seems more than a little Orwellian.

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