Notes from a Show Trial


Like any other exhibition, it starts at a ticket booth and ends at a gift shop. But rather than showcasing the usual collections of Impressionist paintings or dusty historical artefacts, this exhibition has a more macabre subject matter.

Entering to a surreal soundtrack of pre-recorded screams and John Lennon’s peace anthem, Imagine, you pass through a dark tunnel before emerging in a room containing ten makeshift body bags splattered in blood and fenced off with barbed wire.

A memorial to the 24 Iraqi civilians who were killed by US Marines in a 2005 incident known as the ‘Haditha massacre’, it’s the first of many gruesome, life-size displays depicting the horrors of war as inflicted by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq and at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.

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In the rooms that follow, there are graphic reconstructions of detainees being tortured and abused. A particularly disturbing section features ghoulish mannequins that depict the extreme deformities suffered by some Iraqi babies that have been blamed on the use of depleted uranium in weapons by the US armed forces.

In an uncanny twist on the trophy photos taken by some abusive US military guards, visiting Iraqis take pictures of the hooded dummies tied up in stress positions, being electrocuted or subjected to water-boarding. A few Malaysian schoolchildren break down in tears and have to be comforted by their teacher.

Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee, walked out after a few minutes.

‘I went into the exhibition with two other former Guantanamo detainees,’ says Begg, a 41-year-old British Muslim who was held for three years without charge or trial at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. ‘We all had tears in our eyes. No-one said a word for five minutes and then I walked out. It brought back the isolation and the humiliation of the prison cells.’

‘The harsh reality is that what you see in there is just a glimpse. If you think it’s too much, it shows just how detached people are from the realities of war,’ he adds.

The exhibition was part of a four-day conference held in Kuala Lumpur late last month as part of an ongoing mission by outspoken former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to ‘criminalise war’.

The conference culminated in two days of hearings by the self-named ‘Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal’, which is attempting to try former US president George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair with war crimes over the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

During 22 years as prime minister, Mahathir was an outspoken voice for the developing world, clashing frequently with Western leaders and institutions.

He attacked globalization, criticized US foreign policy in the Middle East and rejected the strictures of the International Monetary Fund at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, which he blamed variously on Jews, the financier George Soros and international currency trading.

Since his departure from political office in 2003, the 84-year-old has taken the advice of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and refused to ‘go gentle into that good night’. He has mounted regular, stinging attacks on his successors Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak on his popular blog Che Det. Meanwhile, he has become an ever more strident critic of the United States and Israel, promoting his beliefs that the September 11, 2001 attacks were some form of conspiracy and that Jews ‘rule the world by proxy’.

However, Mahathir insists that his latest gambit–attempting to bring Bush and Blair to book-isn’t part of some anti-Western mission.

‘The focus is on the US principally because they are the main players in Iraq,’ he says before the first sitting of the tribunal. ‘America and Britain launched this war and the world should regard these people [Bush and Blair] as criminals.’

While the tribunal has no official international status, Mahathir insists that it will follow proper judicial process as it investigates the roles of the US and British government in the deaths of thousands of civilians in Iraq, the use of detention without trial and the torture and abuse of prisoners.

The Kuala Lumpur tribunal, which was adjourned until a later, unspecified date after the preliminary proceedings closed on October 31, is inspired by a similar body set up by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1966 to investigate possible war crimes committed by the US military in Vietnam.

The so-called Russell Tribunal was laughed off by many as a powerless show trial. The organizers of the Kuala Lumpur tribunal have gone to some lengths to ensure that it is taken more seriously, recruiting two senior ex-UN officials, Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday, to the investigatory war crimes commission, appointing seven experienced lawyers from the United States, India and Malaysia to preside as judges, and drawing up a 111-page procedural charter.

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