Monday, September 01, 2008

1994: When a caning seemed like torture

A chance association turned my thought today to Michael Fay, the American teen who in 1994 was sentenced to be caned in Singapore after allegedly vandalizing cars. Fay pleaded guilty on the understanding that he would not be caned and later claimed that he had never vandalized any cars, only stolen a couple of street signs. Judicial caning in Singapore is extraordinarily painful and can leave scars for years. Barely budging in response to U.S. pressure, the Singaporean government reduced the sentence from six cane strokes to four - and carried it out.

My thought was that if the incident happened today, the U.S. government would never have the face to plead and pressure Singapore for clemency, as President Clinton and much of the U.S. Senate did in 1994. According to Wikipedia:
The official position of the United States government was that while it recognized Singapore's right to try and punish Fay with due process of law, it deemed the punishment of caning to be excessive for a teenager committing a non-violent crime. The United States embassy in Singapore pointed out that the graffiti damage that Fay made on the cars was not permanent, but caning would leave Fay with physical as well as long-term emotional scars.

U.S. President Bill Clinton called the punishment prescribed by Singapore as extreme and mistaken, continuing to pressure the Singaporean government to grant Fay clemency from caning. Two dozen U.S. senators signed a letter to the Singaporean government also appealing for clemency. After Fay's punishment was carried out, the United States Trade Representative said that he would try to prevent the World Trade Organization's first ministerial meeting from taking place in Singapore.

Following Fay's sentence, the case received wide coverage by the U.S. media and dozens of reporters were sent to Singapore to cover the case.[1] The New York Times had several editorials and op-eds that condemned the punishment and called the American public to flood the Singaporean embassy in the United States with protests. Newsday wrote about a person who claimed to have witnessed a graphic public caning event in Singapore, despite the fact that Singapore does not practice public canings. Some commentaries treated the Michael Fay affair as a clash of civilizations between Asian values and the differing view of human rights common in liberal western cultures.

In 1994 as today, there was no shortage of brutality in U.S. prisons equal to and exceeding officially administered caning. Still, the high assumed moral ground from which this plea was made stings now -- after six years in which the U.S. has tortured to death dozens of people in its custody and subjected hundreds of terror suspects to isolation, sleep deprivation, sustained standing, stress positions, beatings, extremes of heat and cold, sexual humiliation and in some cases waterboarding.

Today we've reached the point where a U.S. citizen, detained and tortured by the Chinese for protesting repression in Tibet, goes out of his way to note that his treatment was less harsh than that meted out out to U.S. detainees in Guantanamo. Here's graffiti activist James Powderly, held in detention in China for six days, describing his treatment to Jen Carlson of Gothamist:
Would you say the interrogations were torture? Well, I think probably, a lot of people might disagree, even some of my other detainees might feel like what they received wasn't torture. And relative to what someone might receive on a daily basis at a place like Gitmo it certainly is not particularly harsh. It's kind of like being a little bit pregnant, we were a little bit tortured. We were strapped into chairs in uncomfortable positions, we were put into cages with blood on the floor and told we would never live, we were sleep deprived the entire time. There was an interrogation every night and they kept us up all day. They never turned the lights off in the cells. We were fed food that was inedible, we were not given potable water. Any time you threaten and take the numbers of family members and take down home addresses, there's an element of mental torture there. There's physical torture in the form of us having to sit in uncomfortable positions all day long and spending the night strapped to a metal chair inside of a cage. We all have cuts and bruises from that, and some of my peers were beaten up a little bit.
People worry about American decline. Well, here it is. If we don't roll back and repudiate the torture regime put in place by the Bush Administration, we'll have destroyed our most precious inheritance, the foundation of our prosperity and creativity and ultimately, our power.

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