By Pavel Litvinov
Saturday, June 18, 2005
Several days ago I received a telephone call from an old friend who is a longtime Amnesty International staffer. He asked me whether I, as a former Soviet "prisoner of conscience" adopted by Amnesty, would support the statement by Amnesty's executive director, Irene Khan, that the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba is the "gulag of our time."
"Don't you think that there's an enormous difference?" I asked him.
"Sure," he said, "but after all, it attracts attention to the problem of Guantanamo detainees."
The word "gulag" was a bureaucratic acronym for the main prison administration in Stalin's Soviet Union. After publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," it became a symbol for the system of forced-labor camps that have been an integral feature of communist countries. Millions of prisoners confined in the gulag had not been involved in violence or committed any crime -- they were there because they belonged to a "wrong" social, national or political group or expressed a "wrong" opinion.
The cruelty and scale of the gulag system are described in numerous books, so there is no need to recount them here. By any standard, Guantanamo and similar American-run prisons elsewhere do not resemble, in their conditions of detention or their scale, the concentration camp system that was at the core of a totalitarian communist system.
For example, incidents of desecration of the Koran in Guantanamo by U.S. personnel have been widely reported. But those Korans were surely not brought to Guantanamo by the prisoners themselves from Afghanistan. They were supplied by the U.S. administration -- in spite of the obvious fact that most of the prisoners misguidedly found in the Koran the inspiration for their violent hatred of the United States.
By contrast, Russian author Andrei Sinyavsky, who was sentenced in 1966 to seven years' forced labor for his writing, was approached one evening soon after his arrival in a labor camp by a prisoner who quietly asked Sinyavsky whether he wanted to listen to a recital of the biblical account of the apocalypse. (Possession of a Bible was strictly prohibited in the gulag.) The man took Sinyavsky to the furnace room, where a group of people were squatting in the dark recesses. In the light of the furnace flame, one of the men got up and started to recite the biblical passages by heart. When he stopped, the stoker, an old man, said: "And now you, Fyodor, continue." Fyodor got up and recited from the next chapter. The whole text of the Bible was distributed among these prisoners, ordinary Russians who were spending 10 to 25 years in the gulag for their religious beliefs. They knew the texts by heart and met regularly to repeat them so that they would not forget. And this happened in 1967, when the gulag had become smaller and the Soviet regime milder than it had been under Stalin.
Amnesty International, with its fact-based, objective and balanced approach to the defense of human rights, has been a source of hope for dissidents everywhere. A central idea of Amnesty has been the concept of prisoner of conscience as a person who neither uses nor advocates political violence. Just to know that you have been adopted as a prisoner of conscience, that somewhere in the world there are people who know your name and are working for your release, gives a prisoner hope.
When I arrived in the United States after serving my term in Siberian exile, I met hundreds of dedicated Amnesty activists throughout the country who wrote letters to leaders of world governments demanding the release of prisoners of conscience. This activity created a special solidarity of human rights activists across national borders. Naturally, communist leaders denounced Amnesty as a CIA front, and right-wing dictators dismissed its members as communist plotters.
It was only natural that Amnesty flourished in the United States and in Western Europe, where human rights are taken seriously and their defense became an official part of U.S. foreign policy, largely due to the efforts of President Jimmy Carter. There were heroic attempts to create Amnesty groups in countries with dictatorial regimes, including the Soviet Union, but most of those attempts were crushed by arrests and forced emigration.
There is ample reason for Amnesty to be critical of certain U.S. actions. But by using hyperbole and muddling the difference between repressive regimes and the imperfections of democracy, Amnesty's spokesmen put its authority at risk. U.S. human rights violations seem almost trifling in comparison with those committed by Cuba, South Korea, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
The most effective way to criticize U.S. behavior is to frankly acknowledge that this country should be held to a higher standard based on its own Constitution, laws and traditions. We cannot fulfill our responsibilities as the world's only superpower without being perceived as a moral authority. Despite the risks posed by terrorism, the United States cannot indefinitely detain people considered dangerous without appropriate safeguards for their conditions of detention and periodic review of their status.
Words are important. When Amnesty spokesmen use the word "gulag" to describe U.S. human rights violations, they allow the Bush administration to dismiss justified criticism and undermine Amnesty's credibility. Amnesty International is too valuable to let it be hijacked by politically biased leaders.
The writer, who was a dissident active in human rights causes in the Soviet Union, now lives in the United States.