Hard News by Russell Brown

Defending democracy

The stories of the so-called Guantanamo Five - the five Britons returned to their home country after two years at Camp X-Ray last week - haven't been big news here, but they make for extremely disturbing reading.

Britain's Daily Mirror paid £65,000 for the exclusive story of one of the men, Jamal al-Harith (nee Ronnie Fiddler) who said he had originally been arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban, as a suspected British spy, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Ironically, he was then taken by US forces and accused of being a terrorist. His stories from Guantanamo involve beatings, forced injections, arbitrary punishment and some strange psychological torture, all conducted outside international law.

But it is a series of interviews in The Observer with three of the men - covering events in Afghanistan that seem truly shocking. They claim, among other things, that as many as 35,000 men and boys were rounded up and put under the control of the Northern Alliance after the major fighting ceased in Afghanistan - and that more than 30,000 of those taken were killed or died of thirst, heat or existing injuries. Even if they are exaggerating - say, doubling the numbers - it is hard to conceive of this as anything other than mass murder.

The most horrifying part of the story involves the men being packed into sealed metal containers, where they began to die of heat exhaustion:

"When I woke up I didn't know where I was. I'd lost consciousness at the side of the container, but when I woke up I was in the middle - lying on top of dead bodies, breathing the stench of their blood and urine.

"They'd herded maybe 300 of us into each container, the type you get on ordinary lorries, packed in so tightly our knees were against our chests, and almost immediately we started to suffocate. We lived because someone made holes with a machine gun, though they were shooting low and still more died from the bullets. When we got out, about 20 in each container were still alive."

All these men deny supporting either terrorist organisations or the Taliban. Presumably, if there had been any evidence against them, they would not have been released, or would have been re-arrested by British police. They were accused, on the flimsiest of evidence, including the false confessions of others, of having close links to al-Qaeda. But even after their alibis were verified, they continued to be held by the US. As they point out, they were lucky.

The Bush administration has flouted all international norms in holding and abusing these men, and the belief, even were it true, that they are "enemy combatants" is no excuse for that. You cannot defend democratic principles by denying them to others.

Meanwhile, around 10,000 men and boys (as young as 11) remain, uncharged but in detention in Iraq. The manner of their capture appears to have largely been arbitrary. Teachers, who by the nature of their job were obliged to join the Ba'ath party, appear to have been particularly popular targets for detention.

The response of the Spanish people to last week's murderous bomb attacks has been inspiring. They have peacefully taken to the streets, in their millions, and said, no. They have also seen fit to remove the centre-right Popular Party, which offered Spain's backing for war in Iraq, against clear public opinion.

And just one more thing: Hugh Sundae asked Helen Clark this morning whether the government would be stumping up the $4 billion for the Eastern Transport Corridor, on top of the $6.5 billion already budgeted for other projects. Her answer: highly unlikely. It is a long way down the list of priorities. So Mayor Banks' fond declaration that the taxpayer would wade in and pay for his project appears to be worthless. It is increasingly unclear just who will pay. Forgive me if I can't help but regard it as a fantasy.

PS: If you didn't catch Pat Snedden's speech on Public Address last week - and lots of people appear to have been moved by it - you can still read it here.