WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government should name a special prosecutor to look at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's possible role in the torture and abuse of Iraqi and other prisoners by U.S. troops, a leading human rights group has demanded.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a report released on Sunday, said Rumsfeld might bear ''command responsibility'' for abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
''This pattern of abuse across several countries did not result from the acts of individual soldiers who broke the rules,'' said HRW lawyer Reed Brody. ''It resulted from decisions made by senior U.S. officials to bend, ignore, or cast rules aside.''
The doctrine of command responsibility holds superiors responsible for crimes committed by subordinates when the superiors knew or should have known that they were being committed but failed to take reasonable measures to stop them.
HRW said mounting evidence merited criminal investigations into Rumsfeld, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet, former commander of U.S. troops in Iraq Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and Gen. Geoffrey Miller, former commander of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. It did not say they would ultimately prove guilty.
The group asked that the investigations be kept out of the hands of the Justice Department because U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales also played a role in approving interrogation techniques that appeared to violate international law.
The group again called on Congress and President George W. Bush to establish a special commission, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission, to investigate the issue of prisoner abuse.
The U.S. Army announced last week it had cleared Sanchez of all alleged wrongdoing stemming from abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. It said that Sanchez authorized the ratcheting up of interrogation techniques in September 2003 and that mitigating circumstances justified this.
The Pentagon said Rumsfeld did not authorize or condone any abuse.
''We vigorously dispute any assertion or implication that the Department of Defense approved of, sanctioned, or condoned as a matter of policy detainee abuse,'' it said in an earlier statement. ''No policies or procedures approved by the Secretary of Defense were intended as, or could conceivably have been interpreted as, a policy of abuse, or as condoning abuse.''
HRW released its report ahead of the first anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal, which broke in late April last year when it emerged that U.S. guards at the Baghdad prison had tortured and abused Iraqi detainees.
Some guards have stood trial but HRW, like others, demanded a full accounting of what senior defense officials knew about or authorized.
''The soldiers at the bottom of the chain are taking the heat for Abu Ghraib and torture around the world while the guys at the top who made the policies are going scot-free,'' Brody said.
Two other groups--the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First--are suing Rumsfeld in federal court on behalf of eight Iraqi men who said U.S. forces in their country and Afghanistan tortured them.
The Pentagon and Rumsfeld have strenuously denied the suit's accusation that the defense secretary signed off on unlawful interrogation techniques.
The suit seeks unspecified compensation, a declaration that the Pentagon chief violated the U.S. Constitution's due process protections and federal and international laws prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
The Pentagon said it had conducted eight major probes of alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere and that more were in progress. More than 100 individuals had undergone or were going through disciplinary proceedings as of March 1 and more such action could follow.
''The Department of Defense has demonstrated a record that credible allegations of illegal conduct by U.S. military personnel are taken seriously and investigated,'' it added.
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