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March 31, 2010

To Barak Obama: Milestones remembered

Yvonne Ridley

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There are some significant milestones approaching which serve to remind all peace and freedom-loving people of our duty to recall the errors of the past so we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

And you’d think one of the first people to support this philosophy would be the President of the United States, Barak Obama.

His family history is punctuated with grave injustices and suffering brought about by the brutality of the British Empire … I’m sure there would have been cries of “never forget” during previous family gatherings.

And after the brutality with which the Mau Mau revolution was put down, I’m sure there were many Brits appalled at what had been done in their name.

But that is in the past and when we forget our history it seems the same injustices are repeated again … violence meted out to innocents in the name of innocents by powerful governments who do terrible things in the name of freedom and liberty.

Tragically, now that he has become allegedly the most powerful man on the planet, Obama seems too busy trampling over the innocents, the weak and needy to hear the cries of his ancestors.

Perhaps if he had once shared the same cell as Moazzam Begg in Bagram and heard the piercing screams of the woman prisoner next door he might be jolted out of his political amnesia.

Perhaps if he had seen the shambolic, wrecked figure of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui in Bagram’s military prison in Afghanistan – like Binyam Mohamed did – he might be more willing to confront America’s brutal, recent past more vigorously.

We are now heading for the 3,000th day the first person was arrested, tortured and abused in Guantanamo in the dark world which came to define George W Bush’s War on Terror.

We also remember the 7th anniversary of Dr. Aaafia Siddiqui’s disappearance – along with the kidnapping and renditioning of her three children – from a taxi in Karachi in March 2003.

And with the recent passing of the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, I recall his words: “Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”

So it is our duty to remind President Obama of his wider responsibilities and obligations not just to the American people, but to those across the world who are affected by his foreign policies … and even closer to home, to honour the memory of his grandfather.

And if he’s not in the mood for listening, let’s remind him of his family history.

Barack Obama’s grandfather was imprisoned and brutally tortured by the British during the violent struggle for Kenyan independence.

Hussein Onyango Obama, the U.S, President’s paternal grandfather, joined in the Kenyan struggle for independence while working as a cook for a British army officer after the war.

He was arrested in 1949 and jailed for two years in a high-security prison where, according to his family, he was subjected to horrific violence to extract information about the growing insurgency.

“The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed,” said Sarah Onyango, Hussein Onyango’s third wife, the woman President Obama referred to as “Granny Sarah”.  

The late Mrs Onyango once described how “white soldiers” visited the prison every two or three days to carry out “disciplinary action” on the inmates suspected of subversive activities.

The British were actually not friends but, instead, enemies,” Mrs Onyango said. “My husband had worked so diligently for them, only to be arrested and detained.”

The Mau Mau uprising was met with a draconian, imperialistic violence and law without justice that only bullying superpowers can get away with unchallenged.

Many of us are terribly disappointed by the failure of the Obama administration to adhere to his presidential election pledges which promised so much but delivered on very little.

As Guantanamo marks its 3,000th day as a prison in the War on Terror we are reminded about Obama’s failure to close it down in his first year of office.

But it is his decision to endorse and continue the Bush administration's efforts to conceal the damning evidence of war crimes against Iraqis, Afghans and many other foreign nationals detained in the War on Terror which provides the biggest disappointment.

I firmly believe that among the videos and trophy pictures and photographic evidence in those wretched archives are images of the brutalization of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui as well as other so-called enemy combatants who have since been released without trial or charge.

As a frequent visitor to the United States, I can tell you my views are not alone. Many decent, ordinary, peace-loving U.S. citizens are appalled at what has – and still is – being done in their name.

And while I can see that the U.S. President is clearly shocked by the contents of the archives which are said to make Abu Ghraib’s pornographic and violent images look fairly tame by comparison, he did say sunlight was the best disinfectant.

A clearly embarrassed and shaken Obama then performed a dramatic U-turn and tried to explain that opening the archives would "inflame anti-American sentiment." But his attempt to shield U.S. war crimes will only make things worse.

World opinion of the U.S. will not improve unless the U.S. President leads the way and shows that he is prepared to confront the past injustices and try and make amends for them.

By opening the terror archives and holding those responsible accountable, as well as making restitution to the victims the U.S. will be able to move forward and try and rehabilitate its tarnished image.

It will go some way to addressing the growing anti-Americanism in the Muslim world and beyond.

Please Obama, don’t make the same mistake as the British – the past atrocities of Empire continually come back to haunt the U.K. today.

As a British citizen I am continually challenged over the crimes against humanity carried out by the Victorian Empire in the name of freedom and democracy – even now our government refuses to apologize for the misery, poverty and terror exported across the globe.

Obama now needs to use his power and authority to do the right thing to make amends for the War on Terror.

As Malcolm X said: “Power in defense of freedom is greater than power on behalf of tyranny and oppression”.

British journalist and author Yvonne Ridley is a patron of Cageprisoners, the British-based human rights organization that was originally created to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror.

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