WASHINGTON - Amid growing evidence of systematic abuse of prisoners held by the U.S. military in Iraq and elsewhere, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) are calling on the Pentagon to open all U.S.-run detention facilities used in the Bush administration's "war on terror" to monitoring by independent rights organizations.
"Torture flourishes in the dark," said Kenneth Roth, HRW's executive director in New York. "If the Bush administration really wants to put a stop to torture in U.S. detention facilities, it has to open them up to outside scrutiny."
An Iraqi prisoner is surrounded by American military dog handlers at Abu Ghraib prison in this photo dated December 12, 2003. The Red Cross saw U.S. troops keeping Iraqi prisoners naked for days in darkness at Abu Ghraib in October, and was told by the intelligence officer in charge it was 'part of the process,' a leaked report appearing in the Wall Street Journal on May 10, 2004. (The New Yorker/Reuters)
The two groups, whose repeated requests to investigate reports of abuse were rejected or ignored by the U.S. administration for the past two years, are also urging the administration to ban "stress and duress" interrogation techniques, such as extended sleep deprivation, forced standing or nakedness, or binding detainees in painful positions.
"Restraining detainees in very painful positions, hooding, threats, and prolonged sleep deprivation violate the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," London-based Amnesty said in a public letter to Bush.
"Comments this week by Major General Geoffrey Miller, in charge of detainee operations in Iraq, that sleep deprivation and stress positions could be used against detainees show that the U.S. administration still has not learnt that ill-treatment and abuse are a slippery slope to torture and should be totally prohibited," Amnesty said.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that the Pentagon formally approved such techniques, as well as others, such as exposure to heat, cold and "sensory assault," including loud music and bright lights," against "high-value" detainees at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in April, 2003, and that similar guidelines have been issued for use in Iraq. The use of such techniques, according to the Post account, is supposed to be approved by senior authorities in advance.
Shown a list of the techniques approved in the document, Roth told the Post they amounted to cruel and inhumane treatment. "The courts have ruled most of these techniques illegal," he said. "If it's illegal here under the U.S. Constitution, it's illegal abroad."
"By ratcheting up the detainee's pain and discomfort, 'stress and duress' techniques almost invariably lead to far more serious mistreatment," said Roth. "Their use clearly contributed to an environment in which some U.S. military personnel believed even more shocking abuse would be tolerated."
The statements by the two groups coincided with Friday's testimony before Congress of senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, about the photographs depicting the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib facility outside Baghdad. In his testimony, Rumsfeld warned that there were many more photographs and even videotapes of severe abuse that have not yet been publicly disclosed, but he did not indicate whether they were confined to events that had taken place in Abu Ghraib or involved only the dozens or so soldiers and officers who been either formally reprimanded or charged with crimes.
While Rumsfeld initially insisted that the abuses were an "exception" that was carried out by just a few soldiers and did not constitute "a pattern or practice," the report by Major Gen. Antonio Taguba that helped touch off the scandal found "systematic and illegal abuse of detainees" at Abu Ghraib, including "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuse" that went far beyond the practices depicted in the photos that have been disclosed to date.
That echoes reports by both Amnesty and HRW, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which, unlike the other two groups, had been permitted to visit Abu Ghraib as well as other U.S.-run detention facilities in both Iraq and Iran, although the Taguba report disclosed that the ICRC was prevented from gaining contact with so-called "ghost detainees" who were held there.
Normally close-mouthed, the ICRC stated publicly last week that it had submitted a series of reports and complaints about the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib to the prison authorities, to top officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad, and other senior Bush administration officials on a number of occasions. One 24-page ICRC report obtained by the Wall Street Journal charged that abuses of prisoners in Iraq was widespread and in some cases were "tantamount to torture." It also documented eight instances in which coalition forces opened fire - in some cases from watchtowers - on unarmed prisoners, killing seven of them and wounding as many as 20 others, the Journal said.
In its letter to Bush, Amnesty said it had documented "a pattern of abuse by U.S. agents against detainees, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, stretching back over the past two years." Last July, it said, the organization raised allegations of torture and ill-treatment of Iraqi detainees in particular in a memorandum to the U.S. government and the CPA in Iraq but received no response nor any indication that an investigation was taking place.
It has also issued reports on specific abuses committed against detainees, some of whom were later sent to Guantanamo, at the U.S. Air bases in Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan. "An individual who worked in Guantanamo told Amnesty International that most if not all detainees he had contact there claimed to have been physically abused in Kandahar or Bagram. This person expressed no surprise at the evidence from Iraq, and stated that abuse in Afghanistan appeared to be part of softening up the detainees for interrogation or detention," Amnesty said.
"The U.S. administration has shown a consistent disregard for the Geneva Conventions and basic principles of law, human rights and decency," said Irene Khan, Amnesty's secretary general. "This has created a climate in which U.S. soldiers feel they can dehumanize and degrade prisoners with impunity. What we now see in Iraq is the logical consequence of the relentless pursuit of the 'war on terror' regardless of the costs to human rights and the rules of war."
"If the administration has nothing to hide, it should immediately end incommunicado detention and grant access to independent human rights monitors, including Amnesty International and the United Nations, to all detention facilities," she added.
HRW, which also issued several reports on the mistreatment and abuse of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the U.S. practice during the "war on terror" of "rendering" some prisoners to countries whose intelligence agencies are known to practice torture, also called for the administration to open all facilities to outside investigations.
"The United States has lost the ability to ensure that its own investigations will be considered impartial and independent," said Roth. "Independent monitoring organizations report their findings publicly, and that's very important in this climate."
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