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May 14, 2004

Evidence Grows of More Widespread Abuse

by Jim Lobe

The Bush administration's contention that the sexual humiliation and physical abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison as depicted in photographs first disclosed two weeks ago were the work of just a "few bad apples" from a poorly trained military police unit is fast becoming untenable.

Human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers have made clear in the last several days that they had submitted to the administration from the outset of its "war on terror" a series of reports of widespread and systemic violations of the Geneva Conventions, not only in Iraq but in Afghanistan and even at the U.S. navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The accounts of former detainees themselves – in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo – have also put in question the Pentagon's insistence that it has provided humane treatment to prisoners under its control.

Moreover, a list of approved interrogation techniques – among them sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation and the presence of military dogs – provided by the Pentagon to congressional committees this week includes some that are prohibited not only by the Geneva Conventions, but also by existing U.S. military manuals.

For example, a 1983 manual states, "prolonged solitary confinement for the purpose of extracting information in questioning violates policy" and "extreme deprivation of sensory stimuli ... is a form of torture." Both techniques, which are authorized under the newly disclosed list subject to approval by the commanding general, have reportedly been used against detainees.

"Stress and duress" interrogation techniques – in which detainees are forced to stand or assume other positions in ways that induce physical stress or pain over time – have also been often applied against Iraqi and Afghan detainees, according to reports by rights groups and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), although they, too, are discouraged by U.S. military manuals. Under the guidelines for Iraq, they are supposed to be employed only with a commander's approval.

Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, insisted in congressional testimony Wednesday that all guidelines had been vetted by Pentagon lawyers to ensure compliance with the Conventions. (The administration has said detainees at Guantanamo are not subject to the Conventions, although it has promised to treat them in a manner that is "consistent" with them.)

But they were partially contradicted Thursday by their two deputies, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the Chief's vice chairman, Gen. Peter Pace. They both told senators they did not know who in the Pentagon hierarchy had authorized the use of such techniques, and Pace said he would consider the binding by a Marine of a naked and hooded enemy in a stressful position – as depicted in a videotape of an Iraqi detainee – to violate the Geneva Conventions. After some prompting, Wolfowitz agreed.

According to one account in Thursday's Washington Post, several military lawyers who were knowledgeable about the interrogation guidelines appealed to a senior representative of the New York State Bar Association to try to persuade the Pentagon to revise them due to concern that they violated the Conventions.

"None of these techniques is legal," according to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), who wrote in the Washington Post on Thursday that he worried that the photos of sexual humiliation risked overshadowing the more common use of "stress and duress" tactics.

London-based Amnesty International, which has also submitted several reports of abuses against detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq, issued its own statement Thursday on the subject. "These techniques of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, amounting to war crimes, and violate the Convention Against Torture to which the U.S. is a state party," it said.

But U.S. abuses have gone far beyond those associated with interrogation, according to the two groups.

HRW released a statement Thursday charging that mistreatment and abuse of detainees in Afghanistan have been "systemic," and called for the Pentagon to immediately open detention facilities under its control to independent monitors, an appeal in which Amnesty joined in a separate statement Thursday.

In a March report entitled Enduring Freedom: Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, HRW detailed a series of problems that it said had become "routine" in Afghanistan, ranging from beatings, sometimes quite severe; dousing with cold water or exposure to freezing temperatures; "stress and duress" techniques; sleep and sensory deprivation; forced nakedness and being photographed while naked.

Much the same story was told in an account that appeared in Wednesday's New York Times about an Afghan police colonel who had been detained for six weeks last summer. He said that while in custody he was beaten, stripped naked and sexually abused by his captors, who accused him of working with the Taliban. He had submitted testimony about his experience to the Afghan Human Rights Commission after his release, but the commission got no reply to its request for a meeting.

"There is compelling evidence suggesting that U.S. personnel have committed acts against detainees amounting to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment," said Brad Adams who directs HRW's Asia division. He added that the Pentagon has still not reported the results of investigations of two detainees' deaths in 2002, which were labeled "homicides" by U.S. doctors.

But to a growing number of observers, the pattern of detainee abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq appears strikingly similar. "It appears to be exactly the same techniques used in Afghanistan as were used in Iraq," Senator Patrick Leahy told Rumsfeld on Wednesday. "I don't think they're getting their techniques over the Internet. There's obviously some systemic training."

While Rumsfeld, who flew to Baghdad on Thursday, demurred, Leahy said he had pressed the administration for 11 months about abuses reported by rights groups and the media but had never received a persuasive reply other than an assurance that the U.S. military was abiding by the Conventions.

Two former British detainees who were apprehended in Afghanistan and held at Guantanamo for more than two years charged in a letter sent to Congress on Thursday that recent testimony by Pentagon officials who denied that prisoners were subject to stripping, humiliation, or physical abuse at Camp Delta at the base was "completely untrue."

Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, who were returned to Britain in March, said detainees were subject to various "stress and distress" and sensory distortion techniques; forced to strip completely for several days for alleged misbehavior; and sometimes left naked and chained to the floor in the presence of women. They also knew of physical assaults against prisoners and the use of dogs to frighten them.

Their letter came on the heels of yet another Times article, which reported that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, an alleged leading member of the al-Qaeda terrorist group held in an undisclosed location for more than a year, has been subjected to interrogation techniques including "water boarding" in which the prisoner is forcibly pushed under water to the point that he believes he will drown.

"This would be a clear case of torture," Amnesty said, adding that the technique is used in many countries notorious for their use of torture. The Times account said the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was so alarmed by the CIA's procedures that they warned their agents to stay outside rooms in which interrogations were taking place.

(Inter Press Service)

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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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