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Gulag v. Guantánamo

Equivalency Test

In a recent report, Amnesty International referred to the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo as "the gulag of our time." The term--a Russian abbreviation for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration--refers to the network of Soviet labor camps established during Stalin's rule that continued, in a different form, for much of the Soviet Union's history. During a press conference on Tuesday, President Bush rejected the charge as "absurd." Amnesty has defended its use of the term. Below, a comparison of the two prison systems, with the aid of Anne Applebaum's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gulag: A History.

Individuals Detained:

Gulag: Approximately 20 million passed through the Gulag. The population at any one time was generally around two million.

Guantánamo: 750 prisoners have passed through the camp. The current population is about 520.

Number of Camps:

Gulag: 476 separate camp complexes comprising thousands of individual camps. By the end of the 1930s, camps were located in each of the Soviet Union's twelve time zones.

Guantánamo: Five small camps on the U.S. military base in Cuba.

Reasons for Imprisonment:

Gulag: Opposition to the Soviet regime's forced collectivization, including efforts to hide grain in cellars; owning too many cows; need for slave labor to complete massive industrialization and mining projects; political opposition to the Soviet system; being Jewish; being Finnish; being religious; being middle class; being in need of reeducation; having had contact with foreigners; refusing to sleep with the head of Soviet counterintelligence; telling a joke about Stalin.

Guantánamo: Fighting for the fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan; being suspected of links to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Judicial Review:

Gulag: None. "Trials" of those sent to the Gulag often lasted only a few minutes.

Guantánamo: The Bush administration has argued that detainees are unlawful combatants, not prisoners of war. The Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that prisoners must receive hearings on their legal status. One hundred and fifty have decided to challenge their detention, and dozens of lawyers have been arriving at the base to represent them. Human rights groups and lawyers for detainees have argued that the military hearings are inadequate.

Red Cross Visits:

Gulag: None that I could find.

Guantánamo: Regular visits since January 2002. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has reportedly complained to the U.S. government about several aspects of prisoner treatment, including occasional beatings and other interrogation tactics. Per its standard practice, the ICRC does not make its complaints public.

Deaths as a Result of Poor Treatment:

Gulag: At least two to three million. Mass burials were often employed to keep death rates secret (camp commanders sometimes received permission to remove gold fillings before burial). In some particularly brutal periods, camp commanders simply executed thousands of prisoners. But deaths due to overwork were much more common. It is estimated that 25,000 gulag laborers died during the construction of the White Sea Canal in the early '30s. One convoy of "backward elements" destined for the Gulag in 1933 included about 6,000 prisoners; after three months, 4,000 were dead. "The survivors had lived because they ate the flesh of those who had died," according to an account cited by Applebaum.

Guantánamo: No reports of prisoner deaths.

Typical Treatment:

Gulag: For the most part, Gulag prisoners provided labor for the Soviet system. Treatment varied widely, but most prisoners lived in overcrowded barracks, and prisoners occasionally killed one another in an effort to find space to sleep. Deadly dysentery and typhus outbreaks were common. Prisoners often had inadequate clothing to protect themselves from the elements, and most camps lacked running water and heat.

Guantánamo: A recent Time magazine report found that "the best-behaved detainees are held in Camp 4, a medium-security, communal-living environment with as many as 10 beds in a room; prisoners can play soccer or volleyball outside up to nine hours a day, eat meals together and read Agatha Christie mysteries in Arabic. Less cooperative detainees typically live and eat in small, individual cells and get to exercise and shower only twice a week." Human Rights Watch and other watchdog groups have collected firsthand testimony from prisoners alleging abuses, including the use of dogs, extended solitary confinement, sexual humiliation, and "stress positions." An official investigation uncovered only minor abuses, and most detainee accusations have not been verified.

Religious Observance:

Gulag: Prisoners were occasionally able to smuggle bibles into the camps and hold religious observances, including Christmas and Easter, in secret. Being caught conducting services, however, could be grounds for further punishment. Applebaum records a prisoner's description of a priest creeping through a camp, trying to say mass without being detected.

Guantánamo: Prisoners are provided copies of the Koran and daily time for prayer. Arrows on the floor of each cell point to Mecca. Meals are made in accordance with Muslim religious restrictions. Several prisoners, however, reported delays in receiving their copies of the Koran and that guards mistreated the Koran on multiple occasions. For its part, the Pentagon has documented five instances of Koran mishandling though it denies that a Koran was ever flushed down the toilet, as one detainee alleged.

The detention center at Guantánamo is legally dubious and has been a public relations disaster for the United States. The treatment of certain prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan has been far worse. Amnesty's president Irene Kahn says that these practices are "undermining human rights in a dramatic way." Her outrage is valuable and essential. If only she could express it without employing obscene moral parallels.

David Bosco is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.