The humiliated and maligned: the story of Americans abandoned by the United States in a Kuwait prison

The humiliated and maligned: the story of Americans abandoned by the United States in a Kuwait prison
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3 November , 09:46
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Photo: nytimes.com
The New York Times Magazine published an article "Arrests, Torture, Prison: The Story of US Contractors Abandoned in Kuwait" by writer Doug Clarke, in which he details the fate of American mercenaries stranded in Kuwait.

The Trump administration, he believes, is incapable of addressing the systematic ill-treatment of US citizens in Kuwait. "Dozens of military contractors, most of them Black, have been jailed in the emirate — some on trumped-up drug charges. Why has the American government failed to help them?", - Clark asks. Novye Izvestia provides a translation of the main parts of the article.

On the first night of the Republican National Convention, the opening video asserted that America treats all its citizens equally regardless of race. But at the midway point of the event things took a dark turn. Images of razor wire and jail bars flashed. “American hostages”, a deep voice intoned. “Forgotten and wasting away in far-off prisons. Wrongfully detained by foreign governments. Americans were beaten, abused, starved and left for dead. Until President Donald Trump stepped in.” A montage of news clips showed Trump welcoming recently freed Americans at airports and news conferences. Then the feed cut to the White House, where Trump sat flanked by six former prisoners, five of them white, among them a Navy veteran, a missionary and two pastors, who had been accused of crimes including currency smuggling and stockpiling weapons. They thanked him for securing their releases.

Perhaps no other president has made the mistreatment of Americans imprisoned abroad so central to his administration’s identity. The president seems to relish personally elevating these cases into geopolitical issues, even going so far as to threaten Turkey on Twitter with economic sanctions over the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, one of the evangelical pastors. And after Otto Warmbier, a university student, was fatally brain-damaged while incarcerated in North Korea, Trump made the tragedy integral to the administration’s confrontation with the dictatorship over its nuclear threat, pledging “to honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve” in the 2018 State of the Union address.

“I’m very pleased to let everyone know that we brought back over 50 hostages from 22 different countries,” Trump announced during the convention. “We’re very proud of the job we did.” The video voice-over declared, “No American should ever be left behind”.

But when Nicodemus Acosta, a Black Navy veteran, heard the president’s claims, he knew that this was not the full story. Acosta had recently spent over a year imprisoned in Kuwait for dealing marijuana — a crime he had not committed. But despite his military service and glaring problems with the Kuwaitis’ case, he felt that he’d been completely abandoned by his government. And Acosta knew that he was not alone. Though he had been liberated from Kuwaiti custody, he had left a number of men behind in the emirate’s notorious Central Prison Complex. A total of 28 Americans have done time there for drug offenses over the last five years and received little help from the State Department, whose obligations to them are somewhat limited. And yet the specifics of their cases suggest that more could have been done.

All of these Americans share uncannily similar stories. They were private contractors, supporting American military operations in the Middle East, before being arrested in what were often kick-in-the-door nighttime raids by Kuwaiti police. Some say they were tortured into making false confessions — claims sometimes supported by the State Department’s own records. Most of the contractors say that Kuwaiti police trumped up minor personal drug use into serious trafficking charges, often building off the coerced confessions. All say that they were convicted without due process under Kuwaiti law — assertions that Kuwait’s own police files sometimes support. And they universally complain that the Trump administration has been of little help to them during their ordeals — despite the State Department’s being aware of Kuwaitis torturing Americans.

Никодимус Акоста, ветеран флота США, больше года провёл в тюрьме в Кувейте за преступление, которого не совершал.
Photo:nytimes.com

It’s clear that some of the accused, though not all of them, were not guilty of the charges against them. But regardless, the United States has some basic responsibilities to the welfare of all its citizens imprisoned overseas. And frequently, especially under this administration, it goes above and beyond those obligations. Acosta and the others believe there is a simple reason that their predicament has been overlooked: race. All but three of these contractors are Black; not one of them is white.

...After sitting in a jail during more than a year for a crime he did not commit, Nicodemus Acosta would talk with his 6-year-old son, telling him the reason he had missed Christmas was that he had an unbreakable contract.

Clark notes in his article that Kuwaiti law enforcement officials are often offered rewards for drug seizures, such as promotions and cash bonuses, sometimes in proportion to the seizures.

For example, in one "exceptional case" that occurred in 2019, several officers were awarded more than $ 250,000 for the seizure of a consignment of drugs.

From the testimony of the same veteran of the fleet, Nicodemus Acosta, it follows that he and another american Lowe were relocated to the long-term wing of Kuwait’s Central Prison Complex, a series of interlinked windowless buildings warehousing some 6,000 prisoners, located beside an industrial zone on the fringe of Kuwait City. There they were placed in a dormitory occupied mostly by Indians and Sri Lankans, as well as Jermaine Rogers, a 43-year-old American with a linebacker physique and a monkish demeanor. Rogers was in his fourth year of incarceration, and he took the newcomers under his wing. He pointed out which guards were abusive and who could help the newcomers procure contraband cellphones. He steered them away from the methamphetamines sold by other prisoners. And he laid out the hierarchy among the inmates crammed into the five connected cells in their block of the prison: Kuwaitis on top, and then the economic migrants to the emirate, descending from Middle Easterners from less prosperous countries to Muslim South Asians, like Pakistanis, followed by Hindu Indians and Africans, many of whom were effectively housekeepers for those higher up. The tiny minority of Americans, he explained, were outside this pecking order and survived by backing one another up.

Together, Rogers, Acosta, Lowe and three others who soon joined them created an American redoubt in a stand of three concrete bunk beds. They draped blankets around the beds for privacy, and kept their few possessions stuffed into shopping bags, always within arm’s reach. They pooled funds sent by their families to buy raw chickens and vegetables from the prison commissary so they didn’t have to eat from the communal trays of food fought over by poorer prisoners. They hired an Indian prisoner to cook for them. They did push-ups and spent the rest of the time watching TV, taking turns on a PlayStation and sleeping as much as possible.

Rogers used his phone to speak frequently to his five children in the States and to regularly communicate with his partner, Karina Mateo.

Mateo had transformed Rogers’s life. Before meeting her, he joined the Army to get out of his poor corner of North Carolina, was discharged after a back injury around the turn of the millennium and then struggled to get by on $13 an hour at the Texas arm of a military-contracting corporation. Then, in 2006, he transferred to Kuwait, where he made more than four times his Stateside salary armoring Humvees for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. More important, he met Mateo, also a veteran and contractor. The two fell in love.

But then in late 2015, Kuwaiti police arrested Rogers, accusing him of being a major drug trafficker. Rogers claims that, when the police searched his home, they found two bags of synthetic marijuana that actually belonged to a friend of his roommate’s, and that police increased their weight by mixing in herbal teas taken from his kitchen cabinets. He claims they also planted seven grams of cocaine. At the station, he says, the police handcuffed him to a chair, tipped it back so he was supine and then hammered on his feet with a rod — abuse he says he reported to the embassy. (The State Department maintains no record of Rogers’s making such allegations, and his Kuwaiti police files do not show telltale signs of misconduct, like the photos in Acosta’s.) He was eventually sentenced to death by public hanging. Later Rogers’s death penalty was commuted on appeal to life in prison.

The article that Doug Bock Clarke wrote for The New York Magazine, he says, is a result of two and a half years of reporting and is based on dozens of interviews with the prisoners (over their contraband cellphones), State Department officials, Kuwaitis, the prisoners’ families, private military contractors and experts in international law and military contracting. It draws from extensive State Department records and hundreds of pages of Kuwaiti government files, including police reports.

Together, the prisoners’ experiences reveal a failure by the State Department to urgently address systemic Kuwaiti mistreatment of Americans.

Nicodemus Acosta, writes Doug Bock Clark, after all that has gone through, wondered aloud whether the United States had a place for him, especially after it failed to defend him while he was incarcerated. So many things had combined to make him feel stateless — institutionalized racism, the nation’s forever wars, the offshoring of the middle class, the privatization of the military’s responsibilities to those working for it and an administration unwilling to do much for him and his comrades — it was a question that seemed impossible to succinctly answer. "He kept scratching at a fresh wrist tattoo: the name of the grandmother who helped raise him, who died while he was imprisoned. It had become infected. Even after drinking several mimosas, he did not seem to fully relax. If he did stay, he told me, it would only be because of his son. A month in America had already made it clear: Though he didn’t know exactly where home was now, this was no longer it", - the author summed up.

Doug Bock Clark, according to the publication, is a writer whose book “The Last Whalers” about a hunter-gatherer tribe grappling with globalization, won the Lowell Thomas Travel Book Silver Award.

From the editor:

Russian woman Maria Lazareva, who is being pursued by the Kuwaiti authorities on fictitious charges of "embezzlement", spent more than a year in the same Kuwaiti prison. Novye Izvestia has repeatedly written about the Lazareva case, in particular, and that the help of President Putin, who personally called the Emir of Kuwait, helped to get out of prison in June 2019. However, four months after her release, Maria was again sentenced to 15 years in penal colony, after which she asked for asylum at the Russian Embassy in Kuwait. Where she is with her little son up to this day.

Further evidence of the "fairness" and "humanity" of Kuwaiti justice can, in our opinion, intensify the struggle of Russian diplomacy and politicians for an early resolution of the issue with Maria Lazareva - she must leave Kuwait either to her homeland or to any Western country where she does not face imprisonment.

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