Guest Post by Laura Rovner
Last week, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights rejected appeals from five terror suspects challenging their extraditions from Britain to the United States. The unanimous decision from the judges affirmed the Court’s earlier ruling that “detention conditions and length of sentences of five alleged terrorists would not amount to ill-treatment” if they were extradited to the U.S. and held in solitary confinement in ADX, the U.S.’s only federal supermax prison. The decision is profoundly troubling, not only its outcome, but also the process by which the Court rendered its decision and in the public silences surrounding it.
The decision stands in stark contrast to international opinion that has grown increasingly critical of the use of prolonged isolation, viewing it in some instances as a form of torture. Indeed, the week after the Court released the decision, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture resoundingly condemned it: “As we speak my office is sending a communication, dealing with the possible extradition to the US of five people who will be subjected to solitary confinement…The UN Convention Against Torture states you cannot extradite or deport someone to any place if he or she could be tortured.” He concluded, “I think there [are] very good arguments that solitary confinement and SAMs ["special administrative measures," which impose severe restrictions on communication with other inmates or the outside world) would constitute torture and prevent the UK from extraditing these men."
Yet in the days since the European Court issued its decision, the silence from human rights organizations and the American media has been deafening. The silence is especially striking in light of the considerable—and warranted—criticism of the use of prolonged solitary confinement in correctional facilities other than our federal prisons. This past week alone saw condemnation of California’s supermax prisons in a report by Amnesty International that criticized conditions in the strongest terms—conditions that are, in the main, nearly the same as those at ADX. Other reports have highlighted the detrimental mental health effects of prolonged solitary confinement. And at a time when the conditions of the men detained in Guantanamo still appropriately command significant attention from human rights advocates who have repeatedly decried the lack of accountability for Bush-era torture, the discussion of ongoing torture in our domestic federal prisons has received significantly less coverage.
It’s hard not to wonder whether the silence from human rights groups about the European Court’s decision is born of the same mindset underlying the decision itself, namely, the resistance to believing that the U.S. could be engaging in torture in its federal prisons. Or perhaps this abuse is harder to see because it runs counter to current campaigns focused on the states, on massively overcrowded California prisons or deep South prisons that seem like holdovers from Jim Crow days—with the implicit corollary that federal penitentiaries are well run and well regulated. Maybe the reluctance to speak stems from the still-pervasive Islamophobia that makes us blind to the treatment of Muslims, especially those who are being prosecuted for terrorist crimes. Given the prioritization of advocacy urging the closure of Guantanamo and the prosecution of terror suspects in the federal courts, many human rights groups and advocates have been reluctant to scrutinize and speak out against the practices in our federal prisons for fear of complicating their message. If torture is happening at ADX, what does it mean for these groups to be calling for men to be tried in the federal system?