Tuesday, January 15, 2013


I share this today as a small reminder that Americans aren't the only ones capable of treating prisoners inhumanely:
Ibrahim al-Halabi was confused by my questions. He could neither tell me how he landed himself in a makeshift prison cell nor respond to even simple queries, like what job he held. The 27-year-old had been picked up at a routine checkpoint in the city of Aleppo by rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting the Syrian regime. When he could not provide identification papers, they arrested him.

My broken Egyptian Arabic was probably not to blame for the troubled communication, because another inmate offered logical responses to the same routine questions. But with Ibrahim, they only elicited a bewildered gaze.

On the rare occasion when he did speak, Ibrahim provided contradictory responses. At times he said he worked in a textile factory. Other times he said he was unemployed. Once he even admitted that he had worked for the regime's paramilitary, known as the shabiha, albeit for only two days. Ibrahim was clearly scared. His left hand never stopped shaking. Red spots on his forehead and nose covered the marks where his captors had beaten him. When Ibrahim refused to speak, a fighter yelled at him "Liar! Shabih! Dog!" before intensifying his pain with several slaps to the face.

After a fruitless hour, I gave up trying to extract information from Ibrahim, concluding that the man the rebels accused of iniquitous deeds was a harmless patsy who likely suffered from a mental illness that impeded his ability to communicate with any precision. The handicaps that hinder interacting with others probably rendered FSA fighters suspicious and accounted for his unfortunate incarceration, for Ibrahim did not appear to know how to hold a Kalashnikov let alone even use one. [...]

The United States recently labeled Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization, claiming that it is a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq. But if Washington hoped the move would persuade other FSA units to distance themselves from the group, it grossly miscalculated. For in the Arab world, whatever America thinks is bad must be good. During my time in Aleppo, I was accosted daily by fighters and civilians demanding to know why the United States has blacklisted an organization that has done so much good in society.

When I shared these experiences with Abu al-Hassan, a Jabha fighter, he smiled approvingly. "Civilians are fed up with the FSA. There is lots of stealing, lots of bad treatment of civilians," he said. Abu al-Hassan then listed off the reasons why his organization is so popular. One stood out among his litany. "The FSA just accuses people of being shabiha and takes them away without proof. We require two witnesses."

The organization did not haphazardly choose the number. Islamic law requires two able-bodied male witnesses to prosecute someone, in order to protect innocent people from being wrongly accused for personal or financial motives.

Islamic justice would likely have spared Ibrahim, the mentally challenged prisoner I interviewed, his anguish in the room across the hall from me. Though his captors offered me no proof of his crimes, during the night they continuously humiliated him to the point of tears. Behind thick steel doors the sounds of a grown man crying were all I could make out. And his torment has left Ibrahim just one more Syrian whom the FSA lost from their dwindling role of supporters. 
 Read the whole thing here.

A commenter at the Atlantic's website (where the piece originates) points out that this prisoner was being slapped and beaten for not answering the journalist's questions.   Are we now so inured to the torture of prisoners as a routine part of incarceration that a journalist would not simply refuse to participate in such a thing, ending the session immediately?  What is wrong with us that we are so nonchalant in the face of the inhumane?