Past Stories

These are stories done and published in dailies and periodicals a couple of years ago…

Cold Deaths: Homicide in Winter

A few years ago, following a US Bureau of Chemistry and Soils estimate on the chemical and mineral composition of the human body, it was determined a human body values less than one dollar! But, someone who lives in adoration of the great and valorous exploits of our heroes might genuinely doubt the veracity of this finding. Doubting Thomases might be advised to take a trip to India’s northern region for a convincing first-hand experience on the triviality of human life. Here, cold wave has so far claimed over 210 lives, with 165 deaths reported in Uttar Pradesh  alone. Most of the deceased were women, children and the old who had only the sky as roof.

Surprisingly, the lowest temperature reported in this area was 0.2 degree Celsius, a record in 70 years. But, the figure stands nowhere in comparison with the extremities during winter in Europe and North America where hardly anybody is killed even after temperatures plummeting to minus degrees. There are places in both the continents where mercury touches -20 and below. During winter, temperature in Siberia varies between -40 and -60. But in India, people die like flies  even before it reaches freezing point. Reports from areas reeling under frigid weather conditions confirm that people have died due to lack of proper shelters, food and clothes.

Cold deaths are very common in India, as they occur in the neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, with toll rising every year. According to official sources, over 900 people died last year. The figure was around 700 in 2003. Social organisations and rights groups believe that these are all distorted figures and to get the reality one has to double or treble them.

Authorities are so used to these tragedies that they get busy preparing data during every winter to dole out to the media. For them this is a natural phenomenon only nature can be held responsible for. They are not concerned as long as the cold wave doesn’t freeze their family. For the state or central governments, death of a pavement-dweller is no greater than that of a cur on the street. Nor is someone’s miserable death something that would shake the corridors of power. They seem to believe, if not today, these poor souls will die tomorrow famished or in drought.

While, the official apathy has become contagious. Instead of playing a responsible role in democracy, the mainstream media are interested only in flashing the increasing toll. Are we not hearing the crying children and wailing women and groaning old? Where has gone the intrinsic value of human life? Can’t one have the right to basic amenities unless one belongs to an elite group or has political affiliations or at least represents a religious sect or caste?

Rights groups further point out government’s lack of preparedness as the main cause of cold wave deaths. It is not that the country lacks resources. For instance, Delhi’s night shelters can accommodate just over 2000 people while the capital’s roads shelter over five lakh homeless and destitutes. Only a few schools allow the homeless take shelter at night. Majority bang their doors in the face of thousands of women and street urchins who come shivering in their tattered clothes. Often they are beaten and abused by the police. On cold mornings, Delhi wakes up to find dead bodies of kids lying on the streets, unnoticed and unreported.

Deaths due to starvation or cold are predictable and preventable. We know who are the enemies and where the victims are. We have the resources required to avert these tragedies. We witnessed a devastating super cyclone killing over 5000 people in coastal Orissa in October 1999 even though the emergency was forecast. We also saw, how Australia tackled such a situation a few months after Orissa disaster when a hurricane of same velocity ravaged the country’s western coast which claimed no lives. In January 2001 an earthquake cleft through Gujarat state, burying over one lakh people. But, when a tremor having the same magnitude shook some parts of the US a few days after Gujarat tragedy, only one person was killed, itself due to cardiac arrest. (Let’s not forget how the selfsame country remained apathetic when Hurricane Katrina devastated some southern states, causing the death of thousands of people)

The countries that have contained an emergency from developing into a calamity have not done anything unique, but used their resources and manpower discreetly. It is time the political parties and the governments in the country shed prejudices to live up to what the poor citizens expect them to. While doing political manoeuvring, they have to remember the one billion plus people who roam on this vast land. The will power we have lost is to be regained. Instead of blaming nature for our follies and unpreparedness, let’s rather prepare to save our lives and properties. Let’s live in harmony with nature.

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Guantanamo: Legal Terror of United States

Do you remember Jamal al-Harith, the British who had been detained at Guantanamo prison in Cuba? How could you forget the one who lived to tell the world the full-horror story of Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta? In an interview to British ‘Daily Mirror’ way back in March 2004, the 38-year-old father of three from Manchester lifted the lid on jail atrocities in this US naval base in Cuban province. For the first time the world realized the extent of physical and mental torture  Muslim inmates were subjected to in the name of ‘war on terror’.   

Jamal’s account of Guantanamo Bay life pricked our conscience and questioned our value system. His was not an exceptional case. Like hundreds of other detainees, he was punched, kicked and beaten with baton by the notorious ‘ERF’, US military’s Extreme Reaction Force. The horrors of prison life was nightmarish. Their cells were wire cages with concrete floors and were exposed to the elements and  rats, snakes and scorpions. Detainees were shackled for up to 15 hours at a time in hand and leg cuffs, with metal links sinking into the skin. While, their diet included foul water and long-expired food, all to elicit ‘vital information’ from them.

But, Jamal’s most shocking disclosure centred on the use of prostitutes to torment more devout Muslim prisoners. One inmate had his face smeared with menstrual blood by a hooker. To aggravate their psychological torture,  whores were paraded nude in front of them. “Beatings were not as bad as the psychological torture. Bruises heal after a week, but the other stuff stays with you,” recalls Jamal. Even after his release, Jamal bears the scars of Guantanamo – he stoops into a hunch as he walks due his four years’ life in too short shackles.

Nearly two years have past since Jamal told the story to the world. But, the groans and whimpers of detainees continue to echo within the walls of Guantanamo. As more stories find ink, more voices are heard against Unites States and Pentagon. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former US President Jimmy Carter and International Committee of the Red Cross and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have come in open, demanding the closure of the prison.

In fact, Guantanamo controversy was rekindled in mid February by a five-member independent expert team report released in mid February. The team, which was appointed by the 53-nation UN Human Rights Commission in June 2004, called for international pressure to shut down the detention camp. The report seeks the United States to halt all “practices amounting to torture”, including force-feeding of inmates who go on hunger strike. It also wants Bush administration to investigate all allegations of torture by US criminal courts and bring  “all perpetrators up to the highest level of military and political command” to justice. But, the Bush administration continues to insist on its right to detain ‘enemy combatants’ for national security.

It is not just world bodies and rights organisations that take America to task for violating Geneva Conventions and UN Convention Against Torture. Pentagon-sponsored prison torture have also come in for lots of flak from within. Last week, FBI agents accused US. military personnel at Guantanamo prison of using illegal “aggressive interrogation tactics” on detainees. In July 2004, one of them gave a horrid picture of having found the detainees chained to the ground in fetal position and lighted cigarettes placed in their ears. In another instance, a study initiated by Seton Hall University in New Jersey says, of the nearly 520 detainees,  55 per cent are ‘not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies’. The study also points out that the government has detained numerous persons based on mere affiliations with a large number of groups that are not on the Department of Homeland Security terrorist watch-list.

Meanwhile, several countries have also come forward in support of expert team’s demand. Ambassadors of France, Germany and Britain, a US ally in war on terror, have already added their voices to the growing condemnation of Guantanamo camp after the report. Jean-David Levitte, French envoy to Washington, said recently in a joint appearance by the three envoys on CNN: “Guantanamo is an embarrassment, and so it has to be solved one way or the other. It’s necessary to have the people in Guantanamo get a fair trial.”

Guantanamo has a long history. But, the detention camp’s history starts from  January 2002, during the Afghan war, when US called it a place for the ‘deadliest al-Qaeda terrorists’. Over the past four years, more than 750 detainees have been processed here. Only 8 per cent of them have been found with Al-Qaeda links. Most of the terror suspects have been detained for two-three years without any prospect of trial or judicial hearing despite US promises that some of them would be charged and tried by military commissions. If charged, a prisoner will be assigned a uniformed military defence lawyer even though they have right to have civilian lawyer’s service. One can anticipate what kind of legal assistance a prisoner could expect when the prosecution and defence are represented by the military!!!  However, The first group of defense lawyers the Pentagon recruited for Guantanamo balked at the commission rules, which insist, among other restrictions, that the government be allowed to listen in to any conversations between attorney and client.

One of the most startling findings of Seton Hall study is, only five per cent of the detainees were captured by the United States forces. 86 per cent the detainees were arrested by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance and turned over to US custody at a time when America offered bounties of $5,000 for the capture suspected enemies. The implication is obvious –  most of them could be innocents, who were caught in the hurly-burly of war in Afghanistan. This is further substantiated by the same study. It says, more than two dozens of the detainees are Uighers, Chinese Muslims who fled to Afghanistan, and later to Pakistan when Taliban came under US attack. US officials have publicly conceded that many of the Uighers were wrongly found to be enemy combatants. Needless to say, more could have been wrongly found to be enemy combatants.

Now the question is, why America needs a detention camp in a land which is nether theirs nor is it that of the so-called enemy combatants? Terrorists are either tried and punished in their own countries or legal actions are taken in countries which have directly borne the brunt of terrorism. Guantanamo is in Cuba, but none of the prisoner is Cuban. Detainees are persons seized from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The obvious choice, therefore, should have been one of these countries or the United States itself.

At this juncture, international community needs to criticize Washington more actively and effectively, especially when the UN along with its General Secretary, the European Parliament and a whole list of other powerful international bodies point their index fingers at the White House. And troubles also lie in store for America in another respect: courts throughout the world are beginning to examine more and more seriously the lawsuits of former Guantanamo prisoners, who have been released due their elite nationality. Let’s hope that some day one of these claims would be sustained by a court.

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