'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, February 10, 2006

Guantanamo: The Devil's Chair 

Out here in Sacramento, the disclosure that US troops at Guantanamo have used the restraint chair in an effort to break the detainee hunger strike revived especially unpleasant memories, as reported in an article entitled The Devil's Chair by Anne Marie-Cusac:

In February 1999, the Sacramento Sheriff's Department settled a class-action lawsuit alleging that deputies were torturing people, many of them women and minorities, with a restraint chair. The cost of the settlement was $755,000, the largest ever for alleged officer misconduct in the department's history. The lawyers who brought that suit are demanding that the restraint chair be banned.

The Sacramento case alleged numerous and repeated forms of torture, including mock executions, where guards strapped inmates into a Prostraint chair and told them they were about to be electrocuted.

Katherine Martin, a 106-pound woman with a heart condition, claimed she spent eight and a half hours in the chair after she was wrongly accused of touching a guard. She alleged that the straps had been pulled so tight that they had sliced skin from her back and shoulders and cut off circulation to her extremities and that she suffered permanent nerve damage. She also claimed that she was given no liquids and that she was taunted and mocked. She was denied her requests to use the bathroom and ended up urinating on herself. Martin had originally been brought into the jail on suspicion of public drunkenness. This charge was later dismissed.

Videotapes of the Sacramento Jail's restraining methods played an important role in the case. In one tape, Ronald Motz calls through the window of his cell, asking for his lawyer. "Motz, this is the last time we're going to tell you, sit down," says a police officer, "Your attorney's not here, and the phone doesn't work."

Motz continues to call out. After a break in the tape, guards wrap a spit mask around his face and pull him into a chair. "I just want to call my attorney," says Motz. "You don't get to call an attorney," says the officer. "Why?" asks Motz. The officer tells him that he can't make the call because he was "drunk in public."

A few seconds later, the guard says, "You were going to be released in about five hours. Now you're not."

"What did I do wrong--ask for my attorney?" asks Motz.

"You weren't following directions," says the guard.

The videotapes also show a woman named Gena Domogio being put into the chair naked. She yells at the guards who are kneeling on her back and spits blood on the floor, apparently because her mouth has been injured. The guards respond by wrapping her face in a towel. They keep the towel on her face and at one point appear to hold it against her mouth as they force her into the chair, although she repeatedly says that she has a thyroid problem and that she can't breathe.

Kimberly Byrd was reportedly taken to the hospital after she passed out in the chair where she had been hooded and tightly bound, according to a letter Amnesty International wrote to the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department in March 1999. In the videotape of her restraint, she is obviously terrified. "I'm going to die. Please don't let me die," she says over and over again.

The Sacramento case, Geovanny D. Lobdell vs. County of Sacramento et al., listed AEDEC International, Inc., as a defendant. AEDEC's Corcoran gave a deposition on June 8, 1998, to attorney Stewart Katz. Many of Katz's questions referred to a "Manufacturer's Warning" sheet Corcoran distributes to his clients: "The purpose of the Prostraint Violent Prisoner Chair is to provide law enforcement and correctional officers with the safest, most humane, and least psychologically traumatizing system for restraining violent, out-of-control prisoners," reads the statement of purpose included on the warning. "The chair is not meant to be an instrument of punishment and should not be used as such."

Or, as Katz subsequently said in 2004, in an article relating similar horrors in Dayton, Ohio:

It’s Spanish Inquisition technology with sort of a late 20th century advertising spin.

Was Katz aware that there was a possibility that the US military would use the chair at Guantanamo when he made this remark? After all, the Spanish Inquisition targeted not only Jews, but Muslims as well. It would be an exaggeration to say that history is repeating itself, as people often do when comparing the present to the past, but British historian Simon Schama's comment is apt: We often make the same kind of mistakes. Our moral myopia in this regard remains brutally on display at Guantanamo.

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