Sexual Assault at Abu Ghraib and Privacy Rights

Recent updates about the photos taken at Abu Ghraib (and being withheld by President Obama) including sexual assault of the detainees is incredibly upsetting, infuriating and fills me with deep shame for being a citizen of a nation whose (previous) administration sanctioned this kind of inhumanity and violence. And these truths are ones that I along with so many others feel must be exposed. Author Tara McKelvey, whose book has accounts from female prisoners of Abu Ghraib, takes on the issue at TAPPED, saying that without the photos it’s almost as if the crimes didn’t exist:

While reporting my book, Monstering, I heard about an interpreter who had worked at the prison and allegedly raped a 14-year-old boy, and that there was a video or a photograph of the crime that had been recorded by a female soldier. (It wasn’t Lynndie England — I asked her about it.) Military investigators looked into the alleged crime against the boy – but half-heartedly — and the investigation was eventually dropped. Since there was no photo or video that had been released to the public, it was not a priority.

At the same time, Mark Goldberg at UN Dispatch notes that not a lot of folks are talking in depth about the privacy rights of the detainees who were so brutally assaulted:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for refocusing “public attention on the torture, humiliation and abuse of prisoners sanctioned by senior Bush administration officials” as Daphne Evitar says. But scanning memeorandum, no one seems to be balancing the rights of victims of sexual abuse with the need to air the previous administration’s dirty laundry. (Emphasis mine)

It’s so difficult to decide what’s “right” in this situation as so many of us are advocates for survivors’ rights but also feel that openness is the only way to wake Americans up to the realities of our Iraq policies. I have to say that amidst our horror of these atrocities, my gut feels it would be deeply problematic to ignore the rights of the individuals that these atrocities were perpetrated against.
After everything they have endured, shouldn’t detainees be able to decide whether these pictures go public or not? If their privacy rights were violated by these photos being released “for the good of the country,” aren’t we relying under the same argument pro-torture folks might make for committing these crimes against them?

Join the Conversation

  • prtsimmons

    Can’t the photos be released in such a way that protects the victims’ identities? I agree that the victims don’t deserve to be subjected to public examination, but I am even more offended by the idea that these actions were officially sanctionned, the perpetrators will never face consequences for these actions, and these types of abuse are continuing to happen right now and will continue to happen in the future. Publically releasing the photos, with appropriately-placed black bars over the faces of the victims (not the perpetrators), is the best way to raise public awareness of these rights violations and (hopefully) help to prevent future abuses.
    And, hopefully, it will illustrate the fallacy of ‘helping’ people by occupying their country.

  • pepper

    There are several very shocking and very triggering photographs* of these incidents floating around comment sections on different blogs. I assume they are leaked from various news sources and possibly the soldiers who were there.
    Don’t go searching for them if you can’t or don’t want to stomach seeing them. What I saw was positively the definition of a living hell. Our current administration is proving to be no better at bringing the perpetrators to justice. Obama is hiding behind the troops in Afghanistan. He says the photographs put the soldiers at risk. Years of sanctioned rape and torture are the real reason the risk exists.
    I feel sickened and utterly powerless.
    (* I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the photos.)

  • Marilyn Ferdinand

    I suggest that everyone interested in this subject find a DVD of Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure and be aware than when the first spate of Abu Ghraib photos came out, the American public couldn’t run away from them fast enough and were very happy to have the MPs and CO scapegoated to be done with it. I’m not entirely sure that wouldn’t happen again, even with a new administration. Americans really don’t like to be reminded that we regularly fail to live up to our image of ourselves.

  • jupiter

    Would you want a picture of yourself being raped posted on the internet if your eyes were blacked out? Thought not. *You* would know it’s you.
    So long as we are not hiding what was done, I do not think it is necessary to show it to everyone. A proper response would be to describe what was done and to admit how many it was done to. And to beg forgiveness knowing it’s not necessarily going to be given.

  • jjgirl23

    Beg forgiveness? Puhleease. More like a war crimes trial…

  • Robos A Go Go

    Surely we don’t need to release the photos without the consent of the victims in order to launch a proper investigation. If the White House would just admit that these assaults happened and are looking into the incidents with due diligence, I would feel satisfied.
    Furthermore, I don’t understand how revealing that rapes occurred in one of our prisons is any more damaging than refusing to make that admission even when we know that that won’t fool anyone.

  • Gossamer Facade

    I agree that that we should pursue justice for those that the Bush administration victimized; what I don’t understand is WHY the public needs to see photographs of the abuses that occurred to feel that injustice has been done. Does the need to see what’s happened have anything to do with a sick curiosity to know ALL of the details about what happened?
    (trigger warning)
    I think the victims should have to give consent for those photographs to be leaked. Whether or not their identity is concealed in released photographs, just knowing that pictures like that are out there on the internet and that even more people are privy to the details of their abuse is nothing less than secondary victimization. I was raped repeatedly as a child and my abuser took photographs of me while he was doing it. One of the reasons I didn’t seek to have him punished for what he did to me is that I knew that the photographs would have to be involved. I didn’t want to be humiliated anymore than I already had been. If I had found out that all of America was looking at those photographs (even if my face were obscured) I would have felt nothing less than completely and utterly violated again. I’m not saying that everyone has (or does) feel the way that I do about the subject, but those are very legitimate (and I’d have to say not at all uncommon) feelings for a survivor to have. We should not put these people through anything more than they’ve already been through.
    I think there has to be a way to raise awareness without the photographs. I get the feeling that even IF photos were released a large number of people still wouldn’t care because I think the majority of Americans would feel that: 1) those guys are just terrorists anyway and if it happened they deserved it, and 2) Most Americans (unfortunately) don’t seem to really give a shit about sexual assault.

  • Newbomb Turk


  • Newbomb Turk

    I agree that that we should pursue justice for those that the Bush administration victimized; what I don’t understand is WHY the public needs to see photographs of the abuses that occurred to feel that injustice has been done. Does the need to see what’s happened have anything to do with a sick curiosity to know ALL of the details about what happened?

    For the same reason that General Eisenhower had camera crews film the victims of Nazi atrocities and forced Germans from towns near the Nazi camps to bury the dead: So there would be no doubt as to what happened and the war crimes couldn’t be dismissed as Allied propaganda. I think it shows true respect for the victims to make sure the crimes perpetrated against them aren’t swept under the rug.
    Right now we have a large number of torture apologists who claim there was no torture at all. Like holocaust deniers, they are trying to cover up war crimes. What they’re trying to hide needs to be exposed, no matter how hideous the images are.

  • LalaReina

    I totally agree with you. It would kill me if that were done to me, I’d feel violated again this time in front of the world. I think a lot of people are putting their personal politics over these persons lives.

  • fet

    What I find upsetting about this debate is that the privacy rights to these prisoners is up for debate at all. The whole point of investigating these crimes is that the rights of prisoners under our laws were not extended to these people under the previous administration and should be now. That includes not being torture, right to a speedy trial etc. A rape video of a girl from somewhere in the U.S. would never be aired (I hope) on the 5 o’clock news to drum up public opinion that rape is wrong.
    These people have already been violated by out country without reducing them to graphic images, as we have already reduced them to symbols of their real or alleged crimes.
    It’s time we really started proving that we can treat these people fairly under our laws while still prosecuting them–and the people who have taken advantage of them–starting with giving them to right to privacy. If it takes the re-victimization of these people by smattering the internet and cable TV with images of what are probably the worst experiences of their lives to get Americans to understand the old policies were wrong, then we have a bigger problem than abused prisoners.

  • Gossamer Facade

    I certainly agree that people should be made aware about what happened and none of this should be swept under the proverbial rug. What I’m concerned about though is the privacy of the victims and if there isn’t any way that further loss of bodily autonomy can be prevented.
    The way that the Holocaust was handled did raise a lot of public awareness and effectively silenced many of those who would have denied it’s existence otherwise; however, I don’t know that both situations are completely analogous. In the case of the Nazis, they had been painted as the “bad guys”. Anything they did was effectively be poised to be painted as the perfect picture of evil. It was a lot easier for most people to accept that the Jews and other groups of people persecuted by the Nazis were simply innocent victims of a mad man (and society). In this case, in spite of all the atrocities that Americans have committed, many still view Americans as the “good guys” here. While many might believe that bad things were done to the prisoners in Abu Ghraib, many will still believe that the prisoners are the real evil. Anything bad that happened to them seems less monumental (as opposed to people who are seen as innocent victims) and there’s likely to be the belief that they at least did something to deserve what happened.

  • Gossamer Facade

    Well stated. This is the idea that I’ve been trying to get around to but haven’t exactly been able to pin it down this well.

  • MomTFH

    I don’t care about the photos of sexual assault being released to the public. I don’t think evidence photos or videos are usually released, are they?
    I care about the lack of prosecution or investigation. I care about representatives of the United States perpetuating war crimes with impunity. Prosecution can be done with sensitivity to the victims.

  • Newbomb Turk

    The problem is that the photos are not being withheld to protect anyone’s privacy, but to allow government officials to cover up the crimes and lie about it.

  • Mina

    “…I think a lot of people are putting their personal politics over these persons lives…”
    Especially when releasing the identity of a rape victim can sometimes put her or his life at stake (a la “honor killings”).
    Back on MetaFilter in a thread about the photos,
    spaltavian at 8:19 PM on May 28 commented:
    “Releasing the photos to the public is not required to prosecute those responsible. Releasing those photos right now is going to get people killed.”…
    …and got responses like “That is probably true.
    “It might also be what is necessary.
    “I hope the population is intelligent enough to properly place blame on the Bush Administration when the inevitable retaliatory attacks occur. Bush and Cheney only made America less secure, not more.”
    As if the “people killed” part of spaltavian’s comment couldn’t possibly apply to the victims instead of the rapists. WTF?