Volume 76, Number 47 | April 18 - 24, 2007

Talking Point

The Iran hostages: What’s wrong with this picture?

By Daniel Meltzer

Fifteen British military personnel were captured in Iranian waters last month, according to the Iranian government. In Iraqi waters, according to the British government. Borders are hard to see in the water and global positioning systems can reportedly be unreliable. Well, they were somewhere between Iran and Iraq, at least very close to the invisible border. Too close.

The sailors and marines were seized at gunpoint and held captive in Tehran for 14 days. There were threats from Great Britain and from the White House to let them go or else. Iran threatened to put their captives on trial. Tony Blair said they better not and that, in any case, Britain would not negotiate. George Bush said right on. A couple of days after they were seized, one of the sailors apologized for having illegally violated Iranian waters. Others soon did the same. We saw posed videos of them confessing, eating and playing chess. We heard that there were “back-channel talks” going on between midlevel diplomats, somewhere.

After two weeks, the prisoners were released, in new civilian clothing: light gray suits. (Not quite Hugo Boss, but light gray may indeed be the new black, we recently learned.) Some of the trousers looked too long and some of the jackets could have used collar and lapel work.

They were flown back to England and were hustled off for physical exams and debriefing; no reporters were permitted to speak with them until after these had been completed. Then they held a news conference. A written statement was read, questions from reporters were answered. The former captives said they were subjected to intense psychological torture in Iran and put in fear of their lives. They were blindfolded, they said, and lined up against a wall. They then heard weapons being cocked, upon which one said to the others he thought they were going to be shot then and there, and that then one of them became sick and perhaps threw up. One said he heard sawing outside his cell and that he was measured — for a coffin, he assumed.

They were isolated in tiny individual cells, interrogated, threatened with imprisonment and pressured with propaganda. They were fed. They did not report actual physical abuse. All or most of them eventually confessed to having trespassed in violation of international law.

An old video surfaced a few days before their release, showing one of the sailors being interviewed on the BBC. The British government had claimed their forces were looking for smugglers in the waters of the Persian Gulf. The sailor in the news clip told the BBC reporter that their job was to spy on Iranians.

After they answered questions at their news conference, two of the former captives sold their stories, with official approval, to British newspapers. The government soon withdrew that permission.

Thousands of miles to the west, several hundred alleged combatants captured in Iraq and Afghanistan have languished in cages at the Guantanamo Bay internment camp for years. Some were held previously in secret prisons in unnamed foreign countries whose laws do not prohibit abusive treatment. Many claim to have been tortured there and later at Guantanamo. They have said (through lawyers, because reporters are forbidden to see or speak with them) that they have been subjected to sleep deprivation, beatings, water boarding (simulated drowning), that they were bitten by guard dogs, smeared with feces, urinated upon. They said they were sexually humiliated, their religion ridiculed, that they were threatened with shooting and electrocution. Some suffered serious physical injuries. Some died, allegedly from the beatings and torture. We do not have to take their word for it. There have been photographs and videos.

Yet only a small handful of these captives have confessed to anything. None has had a true trial or even been legitimately indicted. They are still in cages. They cannot speak with reporters, or see their families or the evidence against them. The U.S. government says they could remain in cages until the War Against Terror is over, which presumably means when Terror surrenders or is vanquished from the face of the planet. Like AIDS, or cancer. Until then they have to wait.

What is wrong with this picture?

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