June 16, 2005

June 16, 2005 | Commentary on Europe

Gitmo is No Gulag

Perhaps she was blinded by a hatred of U.S. policies. Maybe she was seeking to shift attention from terrorist crimes. But one thing's certain: When Amnesty International's Secretary General Irene Zubeida Khan called the Guantanamo Bay detention facility the "Gulag of our times" (reportedly adding, "Ironic that this should happen as we mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz"), her words sprung from either deep ignorance or deliberate deception.

Amnesty's Washington director, William Schulz, stated that Guantanamo's detention facility for terrorists (who are not subject to the 1949 Geneva Convention) is "similar at least in character, if not in size, to what happened in the Gulag." He later backpedaled, apparently after realizing that his comments were so grossly politicized they could backfire.

Amnesty advocates protecting terror suspects under the Geneva Convention, yet ignores the fact that terrorists do not carry weapons openly, do not wear uniforms and insignia, and thus do not belong to an army.

Comparing Guantanamo's tropical Caribbean detention center with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's hellish frozen concentration camps makes about as much sense as calling the London police "Nazis." My grandfather perished in the Gulag, as did tens of millions of others, and I am incensed at Amnesty's gall in trivializing their suffering for political purposes.

Gulag (from "Main Directorate of Camps" in Russian) was an extermination machine. Launched by the founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, and expanded by his monstrous successor, Stalin, and his NKVD (secret police) cronies, the Gulag first gorged on "socially hostile" citizens: lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, "white" anti-communist officers -- and their wives and children. Millions were incarcerated with no legal procedure whatsoever.

Many were shipped to the frigid far north, but almost every city had a labor camp nearby. People were arrested for telling a joke, complaining about food rationing, or because of a neighbor's often-unfounded denunciation. Being five minutes late to work or collecting grain in the "collective" field after the harvest could land you in a camp for 10 years.

Many inmates were executed, starved to death or left to die from infectious diseases. Rations were so poor that many developed scurvy and died of malnutrition. Clergy were incarcerated or shot. Families were split up, with children sent to orphanages for "members of families of enemies of the people." My father and aunt easily could have ended up in one, but family friends rescued them.

In Stalin's Russia, top generals, prominent poets, writers, scientists and engineers were shot or died in the Gulag, or were saved at the last moment to provide slave labor for the state. Poet Osip Mandelshtam, writer Isaac Babel and theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold all perished. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, nuclear physicist Lev Landau, aircraft designer Nikolai Polikarpov, engineer Andrey Tupolev and missile designer Sergei Korolev were rescued to build up the Soviet military power in prison-like research facilities.

Millions of peasants and other ordinary folks never returned. Some researchers believe that up to 25 million people died in the Gulag between 1918 and 1956.

By contrast, Guantanamo Bay inmates are fed lemon-glazed chicken lunches and rice pilaf-and-salmon dinners. No one has died from alleged abuses, no one is starving or freezing. Inmates have access to the Koran and religious services five times a day.

The Gulag was replicated in other communist countries. But Amnesty prefers U.S.-bashing to criticizing the real North Korean Gulag, where pupils of Jozeph Mengele, Auschwitz's "Dr. Death," conduct human experiments.

According to her Amnesty bio, in addition to the alleged U.S. violations, Khan has focused on the following cases: the "bombing of Afghanistan," the Israeli/Palestinian situation after Jenin, Bulgaria and "hidden human rights violations in Australia."

Ms. Khan's political agenda is obvious: While Amnesty's annual write-up of North Korea is 972 words, its Israel-bashing report is 2,600 words, with barely a mention of Palestinian terrorism or the brainwashing of children to hate Jews and Americans and strive to be suicide bombers. The anti-U.S. screed is 3,312 words, longer than the reports on China and Saudi Arabia.

It almost requires a character from George Orwell's "1984" to compare Gitmo to the Gulag. Drawing moral equivalence between the Stalinist USSR, the worst totalitarian dictatorship of the 20th century, and today's U.S. is as boorish as it is sickening.

By ignoring the real threat to human rights -- including those of women in the Islamic world, and the children and women raped and enslaved in Darfur -- Amnesty and Ms. Khan are playing into the hands of terrorists hell-bent on destroying the West. Islamists may manipulate some anti-American elements in the human-rights community -- people they consider, to borrow Lenin's phrase, "useful idiots." But in the long term, they have no use for Irene Khan, Amnesty International or their misguided agenda.

Ariel Cohen is a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy security at the Heritage Foundation, as well as author and editor of "Eurasia in Balance" (Ashgate, 2005).

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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