Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Forgotten Case of Torture: La gangrene

A couple of weeks ago I ran across a reference to an obscure book that's been out of print for a generation. The book, La gangrene, was originally published in France in June, 1959. It collects the accounts of seven Algerians tortured by Paris DST (Direction de surveillance territoire) police (The DST is roughly analogous to the FBI.) The prisoners were abused in late 1958 in a police building less than 300 yards from Paris' Elysee Palace, the French White House.
The De Gaulle government, which claimed that the book was "a tissue of lies and Communist propaganda," confiscated all unsold copies of La gangrene four days after its publication. Three days later, the French cops smashed the plates, preventing the publication of a second edition. Still, over 30,000 copies of the book had sold in less than two days, and the book was later reprinted in journals such as Jean-Paul Sartre's Les temps modernes. But the furor died down quickly, and today the story told in La gangrene is all but forgotten.

An English translation of La gangrene--The Gangrene--appeared in 1960, published by an alternative and obscure press. I located a copy through an internet secondhand book dealer. When it arrived yesterday in the original dust cover, it looked virtually unread. The pages were yellowed and a bit brittle, but otherwise the book was in mint condition.
Sad. Because this suggests that the story of the horrible tortures committed in the heart of Paris in December 1958 went virtually unnoticed on our side of the Atlantic. If things had gone otherwise, if the firsthand accounts of torture documented in The Gangrene had received more attention, perhaps a revulsion against torture might've been generated in this country that could've forestalled US torture in Vietnam, SOA-linked torture in Central America, and the current round of enhanced interrogations, unlawful imprisonments, and outsourced torture in the war against terrorism.
Some background: between 1954 and 1962, Algeria, then a French colony, waged a war of independence largely spearheaded by the FLN, the Front de liberation nationale. As the war escalated, the Algerian nationalists painted the French as oppressors and fascists, and the French painted the Algerians as terrorists. Both sides appear to have committed atrocities at times. The Algerians bombed civilian targets, not only to intimidate the French but also to eliminate rival liberation factions (the so-called cafe wars). The French tortured suspects and engineered the infamous 1961 Paris Massacre.
Racist-based dislike of dark-skinned North Africans, coupled with the panic generated of a society that believes itself under the treat of terrorist attack and the anger fueled by war, weakened the French body politic, making it susceptible to the gangrene of torture.
The victims whose testimony is collected in The Gangrene were Mustapha Francis, 29, a dental student; Benaissa Souami, 27, a political science student; Abd el Kader Belhadj, 31, a science student; Moussa Khebaili, 26, a student in the School of Public Works; Bechir Boumaza, 31, a salesman; Ali Hadj, 42, a journalist; and Khider Seghir, 25, a pharmaceutical assistant. Rounded up separately, they were all accused of membership in the FLN, which French authorities had designated a terrorist organization. They were taken to DST Headquarters on the rue de Saussaies for questioning.
While in the hands of the DST, the prisoners were systematically beaten with repeated kicks and punches, particularly in the region of the abdomen; forced to perform exhausting physical exercises, and then beaten when they reached the point of collapse; suspended horizontally on a spit and tortured with electric shock, especially on the genitalia; waterboarded in a mixture of urine and vomit; tied to hot radiators; threatened with death and sexual abuse; and forced to sign pre-written confessions. Two of them required extensive hospitalization afterwards.
The seven men subsequently filed a civil suit against the DST Director, accusing him of "complicity in inficting beatings and wounds." As of the 1960 publication of the English translation of their story, none of them had been given his day in court.
One of the legal machinations that led to the abuse of the Algerian men ought to give citizens in the United States special pause for thought. A special powers act was legislated in October 1958 that suspended Articles 63 and 64 of the French Code of Penal Procedure for prisoners suspected of terrorist connections. These articles basically correspond to the English common law right of habeas corpus. The special powers act permited terrorist suspects to be held at specified domiciles for indefinite periods of time, and then astoundingly designated police buildings in which suspects are interrogated as "specified domiciles." This legalized the fog-and-night disappearance of French political prisoners, much as American ones are today disappeared in Gitmo and elsewhere.
Benaissa Souami describes in The Gangrene one of the tactics he used to get through his torture: "I constantly repeated to myself that one can be covered with filth and yet remain clean." Would that societies that sanction torture could say the same.