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March 9, 2004

US Sets 'Terrible Example' in Afghanistan

by Jim Lobe

US forces in Afghanistan are arbitrarily detaining civilians, using excessive, sometimes lethal force in arresting them, mistreating detainees in ways that may meet international definitions of torture, and administering a system of arrest and detention that is outside the rule of law, according to a blistering new report released Monday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The 59-page report, "'Enduring Freedom: Abuses by US Forces in Afghanistan,'" charges that mistreatment of detainees appears to be routine in a number of U.S.-controlled detention facilities around Afghanistan, and that the detention system itself resembles "a legal black hole" about which almost nothing is known apart from what former prisoners say about it once they are released.

"The United States is setting a terrible example in Afghanistan on detention practices," said Brad Adams, executive director of HRW's Asia division. "Civilians are being held in a legal black hole – with no tribunals, no legal counsel, no family visits and no basic legal protections."

Indeed, the record to date is likely to give ammunition to more abusive governments, particularly in South Asia and the Middle East, where the Bush administration insists it wants to promote human rights and the rule of law.

"Abusive governments across the world can now point to US forces in Afghanistan, and say, 'If they can abuse human rights and get away with it, why can't we?'" noted Adams.

The report was released amid continuing international criticism of Washington's treatment of the more than 600 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban detainees at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Bush administration has asserted its right to hold them indefinitely and refused to grant them prisoner-of-war (POW) status that would give them the right to appeal their detention in an independent court. Washington has also been criticized for "rendering" some al Qaeda suspects to their home countries' intelligence agencies known to practice torture for interrogation.

Its release also coincides with reports of plans for a major escalation of US military operations against Taliban forces and their allies along the Pakistani border later this spring, in part to improve security in advance of elections scheduled for this summer.

The report is based on research conducted in southeast and eastern Afghanistan in 2003 and early 2004, including interviews of former prisoners (some of whom were detained both in Afghanistan and at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), US, UN, and relief officials and military officers, and published reports.

It stresses that the armed foes of the US and its allies, including the Taliban, Hezb-e Islami, and a relatively small number of non-Afghan fighters have shown little or no regard for international human rights standards or the laws of war. They have carried out abductions and attacks against civilians and humanitarian aid workers and bombings in bazaars and other civilian areas. HRW agrees that those responsible for these acts should be brought to justice.

At the same time, however, the report insists that these activities do not excuse violations of international human rights law, notably the Geneva Conventions, by the US. "Abuses by one party to a conflict, no matter how egregious, do not justify violations by the other side," according to the report.

The report covers three kinds of abuses committed by US forces: their use of excessive force in apprehending suspects; arbitrary arrests and indefinite detention; and mistreatment in detention.

Over the last two years at least 1,000 Afghans and other nationals are believed to have been arrested and detained by U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. While some were apprehended while they were engaged in military operations, most have been taken into custody with no apparent connection to ongoing hostilities, according to the report.

It found that US forces regularly use military means and methods – such as firing from helicopter gunships or using suppressing fire (firing to immobilize possible enemy forces) from small and heavy arms – during arrest operations in residential areas where police tactics would be more appropriate. The use of these tactics has resulted in unnecessary civilian casualties, and in some cases may have been so indiscriminate and disproportionate as to violate international humanitarian law, according to the report.

One of the most damaging cases took place just last December when US forces bombed a house belonging to a tribal leader they believed to be associated with Hezb-e Islami. The intended target, however, was not there, and explosions set off by the bombing killed eight people, including six children, in a nearby home.

The report also documents abuses committed by Afghan soldiers or militias deployed alongside US forces, including beatings of detainees and their families, lootings of their homes, and even seizures of their land. The report notes that while the Afghan government is responsible for these abuses, they should also be of concern to the US because they were committed during operations controlled by the US military.

Once taken into custody, individuals are detained for indefinite periods at U.S. or U.S.-controlled military bases or outposts. Except for occasional visits to some of these bases by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the detainees – many of whom were simply picked up for being in the vicinity of US military operations – are essentially held incommunicado, with no way to contact relatives and no opportunity to challenge the basis of their detentions. In the report's words, they find themselves in a "hopeless situation."

Interviews with former detainees suggest that many have been subjected to mistreatment, ranging from beatings, sometimes quite severe, to dousing with cold water or exposing them to freezing temperatures, to sleep deprivation, to forcing them to sit or kneel in painful positions for extended periods of time, a "stress and duress" technique that has been condemned by the UN Committee Against Torture.

"There is compelling evidence suggesting that US personnel have committed acts against detainees amounting to torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment," said Adams.

Indeed, the fact that the Pentagon has still not explained adequately the circumstances of the deaths of two Afghan detainees at Bagram airbase in December – both were ruled homicides by US military doctors who performed autopsies – and a similar case in June 2003 at a detention site in Kunar province bolsters the notion that the US military is operating its detention facilities in Afghanistan "in a climate of almost total impunity," according to the report.

"Simply put, the United States is acting outside the rule of law," the report states. "There are no judicial processes restraining their actions in arresting persons in Afghanistan. The only real legal limits on their activities are self-imposed..."

Nor is the US military the only likely offender. In addition to the Afghan Army, which is also accused of committing serious abuses against its detainees, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is known to hold detainees both at Bagram and other locations in Afghanistan, including in Kabul. Even less is known about its practices, according to the report.

It noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has complained to US authorities about abuses by US troops, including their use of excessive force in arrest operations and its treatment of suspects in detention, on a number of occasions. But "the Afghan government and the Afghan Ministry of Defense have limited influence over US military strategies and policies..." the report asserted.

The ultimate result is a serious loss of credibility for US criticisms of abusive practices committed by Afghan forces and foreign governments, according to HRW. "It is now all too easy for governments to justify their failures to uphold human rights by pointing to US violations in Afghanistan."

(One World)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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