NEW YORK - A leading international human rights group is calling for the Bush administration to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the alleged involvement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials in the torture of a prisoner at Guanatanamo Bay some three years ago.
Rumsfeld could be criminally liable under federal or military law for the abuse and torture of detainee Mohammad al-Qahtani in late 2002 and early 2003, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said this week as some Democratic lawmakers demanded that Rumsfeld step down as Pentagon chief.
The rights group's demand comes in light of findings by a major Internet publication that indicate Rumsfeld might have been fully aware of the abuses inflicted on al-Qahtani, a prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay on terrorism charges.
Last week, a military report obtained by Salon.com included a statement by Lt. Gen. Randall Schmidt that raises serious questions about the conduct of the Pentagon chief and other officials concerning al-Qahtani's interrogation. In the report, Gen. Schmidt says Rumsfeld was "talking weekly" with Gen. Geoffrey Miller, a senior commander at Guantanamo in early 2003, about the al-Qahtani interrogation, and that he was "personally involved in the interrogation of (this) one person."
Schmidt's statement also signals that Rumsfeld maintained a high level of knowledge of and supervision over al-Qahtani's treatment, although he did not specifically order more abusive methods used in the interrogation.
Al-Qahtani, who is suspected of being a "20th hijacker" in connection with the September 11 attacks, was denied entry to the United States in August 2001. He is seen by the military as an "al-Qaeda terrorist," who provided a "treasure trove" of information during his interrogation.
The Pentagon admits that al-Qahtani's interrogation was systematic and well-planned. "(His) interrogation was guided by a very detailed plan, conducted by trained professionals in a controlled environment, and with active supervision and oversight," Jeffery Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, told Salon.com in an e-mail.
"Nothing was done randomly," he said about al-Qahtani's interrogation.
Human Rights Watch says it has obtained an unedited copy of al-Qahtani's interrogation log, which suggests that the techniques used on him during the interrogation were "so abusive that they amounted to torture."
The log reveals that al-Qahtani was subjected to various methods of physical and mental mistreatment from mid-November 2002 to early January 2003. For six weeks, he was deprived of sleep, forced into painful physical positions, and subjected to forced exercises, standing, and sexual humiliation.
Al-Qahtani was forced to accept an intravenous drip for hydration and on several occasions was refused trips to the latrine so that he urinated on himself at least twice, according to the log, which also reveals that the prisoner was forced to undergo an enema.
"A six-week regime of sleep deprivation, forced exercises, stress positions, white noise, and sexual humiliation amounts to acts that were specifically intended to cause severe physical pain and suffering and mental pain," said Joanne Mariner, HRW's director of terrorism and counter terrorism.
"That's the legal definition of torture," she added.
Last year, the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps also made similar observations on the al-Qahtani case. He told the Senate Committee on Armed Services that the interrogation techniques used on al-Qahtani violated the U.S. Army Field Manuel on Intelligence Interrogation.
For its part, the U.S. State Department considers such techniques to be torture and has condemned their use in other countries such as Iran and North Korea in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights.
In a February report, United Nations investigators on torture called on the U.S. government to close down Guantanamo and "refrain from any practice amounting to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
In response, Washington slammed the UN report, noting that the UN experts had declined an invitation to visit Guantanamo because they would not be allowed to interview prisoners.
Independent legal experts say Rumsfeld could be liable under the doctrine of "command responsibility," the legal principle that holds a superior responsible for crimes committed by his subordinates when he knew or should have known that they were being committed but failed to take responsible steps to stop them.
Human Rights Watch's Mariner says a special prosecutor is needed because Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was himself "deeply involved" in the policies leading to the abuse of prisoners, a conflict of interest that is likely to prevent a proper investigation
"The question at this point is not whether Rumsfeld should resign," said Joanne Mariner, "it's whether he should be indicted. A special prosecutor should look carefully at what abuses Rumsfeld either knew of or condoned."
The Pentagon admits that in December 2002, Rumsfeld approved 16 interrogation techniques for al-Qahtani and other prisoners, including the use of forced nudity, stress positions, and "using detainees' individual phobia (such as using dogs)."
However, the military has refused to release the full version of Gen. Schmidt's report on abuses, according to Mariner and others who note with dismay that in July last year Gen. Bantz Craddock dismissed claims that the al-Qahtani interrogation violated military laws.
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