As an increasing number of voices question the inhumane conditions of detention endured by Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, the alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower, there has been growing pressure on the United States to alter this treatment. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and other media outlets reported that the UN special rapporteur for torture was formally investigating the conditions of Manning’s detention. And on January 3 Psychologists for Social Responsibility issued an open letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates calling for a rectification of the "inhumane, harmful, and counterproductive treatment" Manning is suffering.
The outrage over Manning’s confinement is to be applauded, but sadly, his experience is not a rarity. For many facing terrorism-related charges and held in US jails within the federal system since 9/11, most of them Muslim, it has become standard procedure. And despite attempts for years by Muslim-American community leaders and activists to draw attention to these domestic cases, few commentators or news outlets have raised the issue of prolonged pretrial solitary confinement when it was being applied to Muslim defendants. Commentators question the "national security" justification for Manning’s severe detention conditions and note its punitive nature, but the draconian conditions many Muslim suspects face in the United States are too often treated as understandable security measures. Indeed, most civil libertarians have restricted their public condemnations of US practices in the "war on terror" to the prisons at Guantánamo Bay and Bagram.
The growing attention to Manning stems in part from people who have visited him, most notably his lawyer David Coombs and MIT researcher David House, a co-founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network. In detailed reports recounting Manning’s confinement, Coombs and House could very well be describing the conditions of many domestically held suspects—allegedly innocent until proven guilty—who, like Manning, face months, sometimes years, of isolation awaiting trial.
Visitors to Manning can speak about their conversations and provide detailed comments directly from Manning to counter Pentagon claims about how he is being treated (as House has done). But those who visit pretrial Muslim detainees held in solitary confinement under the government’s Special Administrative Measures (SAMs)—lawyers and immediate family members are customarily the only ones permitted to do so—are legally forbidden to speak about the detainee’s situation, including any communication they have had. This has created a wall of silence around the abuses being committed. Indeed, in many cases lawyers and family members risk prosecution if they provide any detail from conversations or quotes from the detainee. SAMs were instituted in 1996 for cases with "a substantial risk that a prisoner’s communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons." These measures were intended primarily for gang leaders and criminals with a demonstrated reach beyond prison walls, but the standards for imposing and renewing them were significantly relaxed after 9/11, leading to their pretrial use. Today SAMs provide the legal apparatus for domestic rights violations that can stretch on for years.