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October 28, 2004

Amnesty: No Change in US Torture Policy

by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - The United States has failed to meaningfully change its policies on the treatment of prisoners, opening the door to repeats of abuses like those at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and making an independent probe into torture by the U.S. military essential, says a leading human rights group.

In a 200-page report released Wednesday, London-based Amnesty International (AI) stressed that without such an investigation and the clear, unequivocal rejection of torture and ill-treatment by top U.S. officials, "the conditions remain for further abuses to occur."

Six months after CBS TV's 60 Minutes broadcast photos of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, AI welcomed a number of Pentagon-sponsored probes into the torture and other abuse there but warned they alone are not sufficient.

"Many questions remain unanswered, responsible individuals are beyond the scope of investigation, policies that facilitate torture remain in place, and prisoners continue to be held in secret detention," said William Schulz, executive director of the U.S. section of Amnesty (AIUSA).

"The failure to substantially change policy and practice after the scandal of Abu Ghraib leaves the U.S. government completely lacking in credibility when it asserts its opposition to torture," he added in a statement.

The report also calls on U.S. President George W. Bush to make public and rescind any measures or directives authorized by him or any other official that could be interpreted as authorizing "disappearances," torture, or other inhuman treatment.

It was released amid almost daily revelations about how decades-old U.S. policies regarding the treatment of prisoners-of-war were either circumvented or ignored by small groups of political appointees in the Bush administration, who argued that those policies were obsolete in waging what one White House memorandum called a "new kind of war."

Investigative articles appearing over the past three days in the New York Times have described how top lawyers in the Pentagon, Vice President Dick Cheney's office, the Justice Department and the White House kept Bush's own national security adviser, the State Department and career military attorneys in the dark about their plans for "military commissions" that deprived suspects in the "war on terrorism" of basic rights under domestic and international law.

At the same time, the Washington Post reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with the Pentagon's cooperation, had secretly transferred dozens of non-Iraqi prisoners out of Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, under an opinion by political appointees in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), in direct defiance of the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.

The revelations come on top of disclosures after the Abu Ghraib scandal last April of legal memoranda prepared by political appointees that appeared to justify the use of torture and ill-treatment against detainees, practices that were explicitly prohibited by U.S. Armed Forces field manuals over the past several decades.

All of these disclosures have contributed to calls by AI and other groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Human Rights First, dating back to last April and May, for a comprehensive independent probe of torture and abuses. In a resolution passed last summer, the American Bar Association (ABA) also urged such a move.

Until now, the Bush administration ignored these calls, arguing that the Pentagon's own efforts to investigate and prosecute abuses were adequate for dealing with the issue.

Earlier this month, for example, the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division recommended that 28 soldiers be charged in connection with the beating deaths of two prisoners at a detention facility in Afghanistan in December 2002, while some seven military police are being prosecuted or have plead guilty to charges arising from the Abu Ghraib abuses.

Last Thursday one Army reservist, the highest-ranking soldier charged after the Abu Ghraib scandal exploded in the international media, was sentenced to eight years in prison for abuse.

Amnesty's new report, "Human Dignity Denied: Torture and Accountability in the 'War on Terror,'" documents what it calls a pattern of human rights violations running from Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib via Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (where prisoners in the "war on terror" were taken to a specially-constructed detention facility that the Bush administration maintained was outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law) and "secret" overseas detention facilities about which the administration has said virtually nothing.

The report stressed that no senior U.S. officials has yet been held accountable.

Noting the administration's claims that prosecuting the "war on terror" after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon required "new thinking," the report finds the administration's ideas about how to fight the war fit a "historically familiar pattern of violating human rights in the name of national security."

It argues that decisions linked to torture start at the very top. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for example, explicitly authorized a number of abuses – including stripping, isolation, hooding, stress positions, sensory deprivation, the use of dogs in interrogations and secret detentions, which amount to serious human rights violations and, in some cases, torture.

"The denial of habeas corpus, the use of incommunicado and secret detention – in some cases amounting to 'disappearance' – and the sanctioning of harsh interrogation techniques are classic but flawed responses," Amnesty said.

"By lowering safeguards, demonizing detainees, and displaying a disregard for its international legal obligations, the administration at best sowed confusion among interrogators and at worst gave the green light to torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment."

It said the sheer number of abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq that have come to light through media leaks or official Pentagon investigations has "punctured the administration's assertions that torture and ill-treatment were restricted to Abu Ghraib and a few aberrant soldiers."

An independent commission of credible experts should be formed, and call on the advice of international groups and agencies that specialize in such investigations, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, the report recommends.

It should be empowered to investigate all levels and agencies of the U.S. government, including the CIA, whose operations – including secret transfers of detainees to other countries – have so far largely escaped scrutiny.

Any commission should also include within its scope recommendations for preventing future torture and ill treatment of detainees in U.S. custody, beginning with a clear requirement that the highest administration officials must make clear their absolute and unequivocal opposition to torture and abuse under any circumstances.

Such a move is indispensable in light of the memoranda prepared by the administration to justify abuses. "What these documents show is a two-faced strategy to torture," according to AI. "It has been a case of proclaim your opposition to torture in public, while in private discuss how your president can order torture and how government agents can escape criminal liability for torture."

(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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