Eleven prisoners captured by the Bush administration
in its "war on terrorism" have disappeared, opening a "gateway"
to torture and other abuses prohibited by global law, says a new
report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
U.S. officials have confirmed they have six of the detainees in custody, according
to the document, "Disappeared: The CIA's Long-Term 'Ghost' Detainees,"
by the New York-based group.
"In each case, however, the United States has not only failed to register
the detainees, but has also refused to disclose their fate or their whereabouts
and thus removed them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period
of time," adds the 46-page document.
That could open the door to torture, says HRW. But "the primary concern
[about the 'ghosts'] must stem, first and foremost, from the acceptance of methods
which are antithetical to a democracy and which betray the U.S.' identity as
a nation of law," it adds, noting that the 11 "disappeared" are
reportedly members of the al-Qaeda terrorist group.
"For al-Qaeda, the ends apparently justify the means, means which have included
smashing hijacked planes into buildings and bombing train stations and places
of worship. The United States should not endorse that logic."
"'Disappearances' were a trademark abuse of Latin American military dictatorships
in their 'dirty war' on alleged subversion," said Reed Brody, special counsel
with HRW, in a news release. "Now they have become a United States tactic
in its conflict with al-Qaeda."
The report follows a June release by the U.S. organization Human Rights First,
which described a series of secret jails worldwide where U.S. intelligence agencies
have hidden terror suspects from scrutiny.
It predicted more strongly than the HRW report that the move would lead to
"What is unknown about this detention system still outweighs what is known
about it," said Human Rights First. "But facilities within it share in common
key features that – while having unclear benefits in the nation's struggle
against terrorism – make inappropriate detention and abuse not only likely,
but virtually inevitable."
The "ghost detainees" were first described in a U.S. military report released
earlier this year that revealed the extent of abuse of prisoners in Iraq's Abu
Ghraib jail, following the international publication of leaked photos that showed
detainees being sexually humiliated by U.S. soldiers.
HRW quotes the military report's conclusion on the detainees: "This maneuver
was deceptive, contrary to army doctrine, and in violation of international
Subsequent probes have put the number of "ghost" prisoners at anywhere
from two dozen to 100.
Beyond the 11 detainees it describes, HRW suggests, "there may well be several
or many more such detainees."
The organization says it "has no firsthand information on the treatment
of these detainees, but press accounts have repeatedly cited unnamed government
officials acknowledging the torture or mistreatment of some of the detainees."
One such report concerns Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as the mastermind of
the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, who the Bush
administration has acknowledged is in custody.
HRW quotes from an account in the New York Times describing use of "graduated
force" on Mohammed, "including a technique known as 'water boarding,'
in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to
believe he might drown."
"Mohammed's two young sons were also taken into custody and there have
been reports that the CIA is holding them as an inducement to make him talk,"
adds the report.
The human rights group says it has repeatedly requested information on another
detainee, Hambali, but has yet to get a response from the U.S. government. The
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also been stymied, adds
HRW, quoting an ICRC official.
Hambali is implicated in the Bali bombings of 2002 and was arrested in Thailand
last year. Soon after his arrest he was handed over, by Thai police, to U.S.
"We are more and more concerned about the lot of the unknown number of people
captured in the context of what we would call 'the war against terror' and detained
in secret places," ICRC's Erof Bosisio was quoted in news reports.
"We have asked for information on these people and access to them. Until now
we have received no response from the Americans," he added.
Commenting on abuses at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. military jails, the HRW report
suggests, "If abuses took place in these places, visited by the ICRC and
subject, in theory at least, to various forms of oversight, it would not be
surprising if abuse were also perpetrated against 'ghost detainees' in secret
detention centers where the recognized protections against mistreatment are
"More to the point, it is impossible to know whether more or less information,
or information of greater accuracy, could have been gathered had the detainees
been held and treated in accordance with the law. A number of doubts have been
expressed regarding the accuracy of the accounts provided by the 'disappeared'
detainees," adds the report.
It quotes James Schlesinger, chairman of an independent panel that reviewed
the Pentagon's treatment of prisoners in response to the Abu Ghraib scandal.
"The CIA was allowed to operate under different rules," Schlesinger told Congress.
"It is not clear what these rules are, however," says HRW, but suggests they
can be traced to a secret Aug. 1, 2002, Justice Department memorandum to White
House Counsel Alberto Gonzales in response to a CIA request for guidance.
Among other things, "that memo, prepared by Assistant Attorney General
Jay S. Bybee [now a federal appeals court judge] said that torturing al-Qaeda
detainees in captivity abroad 'may be justified,' and that international laws
against torture 'may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations' conducted
in the war on terrorism," says HRW.
The report recommends that Washington provide the ICRC "unrestricted access"
to all prisoners of anti-terrorist operations and ensure that all such detentions
are subject to periodic judicial oversight or to the protections of the Geneva
Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.
Finally, "take the necessary legislative steps to ensure that the commission
of a 'disappearance' constitutes a criminal offense, punishable by sanctions
commensurate with the gravity of the practice," urges the report.
(Inter Press Service)