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December 4, 2008

Ret. Officers Urge Obama to Expunge 'Stain of Torture'


by William Fisher

As a group of retired military leaders prepared to urge US President-elect Barack Obama to quickly put an end to the harsh interrogation practices inflicted on security prisoners, a new United Nations report charged that Iraqi authorities were committing "grave human rights violations" in their treatment of thousands of detainees.

"Grave human rights violations ... remain unaddressed," the UN report said. It cited "ongoing widespread ill-treatment and torture of detainees by Iraqi law enforcement authorities, amid pervasive impunity of current and past human rights abuses."

The UN report cast doubt on whether Iraq will be prepared to professionally manage control over thousands of security detainees now in US custody under a new security pact that would end the US mission there by 2012. Approved by Iraq's parliament last week, the agreement mandates that US forces transfer to Iraqi custody all detainees believed to be a major threat and to release the rest "in a safe and orderly manner".

As an example, the UN report said that 123 men crammed had been into a single 540-square-foot cell – about the size of a studio apartment. It urged the Iraqi government to speed up legal reforms and strengthen the judicial system as it asserts more control over its own affairs. The report also renewed concern about the US detention of suspects for prolonged periods without judicial review of their cases.

The UN's special representative in Iraq estimated that there were now a total of 40,000 detainees, including some 15,800 being held by the US military.

Meanwhile, the issue of detainee treatment continued to be a front-and-center issue for the newly elected US president.

On Wednesday, members of the Obama team will meet with more than a dozen retired military leaders who will urge the new president "to restore a US image battered by allegations of torturing terrorism suspects".

"We need to remove the stain, and the stain is on us, as well as on our reputation overseas," said a member of the group, retired Vice Adm. Lee Gunn, former Navy inspector general.

The group plans to suggest a list of anti-torture principles, including making the Army Field Manual the single standard for all US interrogators, revoking presidential orders allowing the CIA to use harsh treatment, giving the International Red Cross access to all prisoners held by intelligence agencies and declaring a moratorium on "rendering" prisoners to third countries for harsh interrogations.

The Army Field Manual requires humane treatment and forbids practices such as waterboarding – a form of simulated drowning widely condemned as torture.

"If he'd just put a couple of sentences in his inaugural address, stating the new position, then everything would flow from that," said retired Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes, whose regiment in World War Two raised the US flag on Iwo Jima.

Obama has denounced waterboarding and other forms of harsh questioning allowed by secret orders.

"Torture is how you create enemies, not how you defeat them," he said in October 2007. He has also vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects, an international symbol of prisoner abuse.

The retired military officers have previously met with Vice President-elect Joseph Biden and with Senator Hillary Clinton, who has been nominated b y Obama to be his Secretary of State.

US President George W. Bush has repeatedly denied condoning torture, but his denials have been widely doubted at home and abroad. A Justice Department report this year found the White House ignored reports it received that FBI agents viewed some Guantanamo interrogations as "borderline torture".

While the issues of Guantanamo's closing, rendition, and harsh interrogation techniques pose ongoing challenges for President-elect Obama, the administration of George W. Bush is being accused of continuing such abuses.

In the latest allegation, a Muslim American, Naji Hamdan of Los Angeles, charged that he was tortured and beaten into confessing to a terrorism-related charge by the security services of Abu Dhabi – part of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) – which he said held him for nearly three months at the request of the US government.

Hamdan, a 42-year-old naturalized US citizen, told his brother by telephone this week that he confessed to terror-related charges after continually being beaten and subjected to harsh treatment.

"They beat him very badly," Hossam Hamdan told news media here. "They stood on his back and another person pulled his feet. They beat him on the bottoms of his feet," he charged. "He said he had a liver problem. They beat him on his liver on the right side [of his body]" until he lost consciousness.

Following his confession, he was placed in the custody of the Abu Dhabi criminal justice system, where he is currently being detained.

Hamdan was arrested in Los Angeles last August after several years of surveillance by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI has acknowledged that the case involved counterterrorism but has denied asking the UAE to hold him. How he got to Abu Dhabi is unclear.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in Federal Court charging that the administration illegally asked the UAE security services to hold Hamdan in order to avoid granting him his constitutional protections against illegal and unlimited detention.

The lawsuit named President Bush, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and FBI Director Robert Mueller as defendants and asked that the administration be ordered to demand Hamdan's release.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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