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Activists Seek Executive Order Banning Torture

by Wolfgang Kerler

NEW YORK - Shutting down the infamous detention centre at Guantanamo Bay is just one of a series of measures to reform U.S. counterterrorism practices being urged by the watchdog organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In a report released Sunday, the New York-based HRW urged President-elect Barack Obama to quickly repudiate the abusive policies put in place by the George W. Bush administration in its "global war on terror".

"The Obama administration is going to have a difficult task to restore America's standing in the world," Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism programme director at HRW, told IPS. "The Bush administration's counterterrorism policies deeply damaged the reputation of the United States."

HRW's 11-step action plan -- entitled "Fighting Terrorism Fairly and Effectively: Recommendations for President-elect Obama" -- suggests how the U.S. could again become a credible leader in the fight for the global implementation of human rights.

"But it depends on how dramatically the Obama administration makes a clear break with the past," Mariner added.

According to HRW, some 250 terrorist suspects are still being held as "enemy combatants" at the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay opened in 2002. Most of the detainees have now been in custody for nearly seven years, without charge.

As president, Obama should close the detention facility -- a step he has already pledged to take -- and establish a task force to review all the detainees' cases to determine whether they should be charged and brought to trial or released.

Also among the 11 steps is the abolition of military commissions to try suspected foreign terrorists. HRW argues that these commissions lack "basic fair trial guarantees" and that federal criminal courts were the "best-equipped" and "time tested" venues to handle terrorism cases.

Similarly, plans to legalise the indefinite preventive detention of suspected terrorists - based on "predictions of future dangerousness" -- should be rejected by Obama, HRW says.

Justifying detention without charge by classifying people as "enemy combatants" in the "war on terror", as has happened to suspects arrested in locations like Bosnia, Thailand and along the U.S.-Mexico border, should also be stopped.

HRW also condemned the use of torture and inhumane interrogation techniques by U.S. armed forces and intelligence agencies -- "including stripping detainees naked, subjecting them to extremes of heat, cold, and noise, and depriving them of sleep for long periods".

To ban these practices, which have led to the deaths of some detainees, Obama should quickly issue an executive order and repudiate legal memos issued by the Bush Justice Department and presidential directives under the outgoing administration that permit torture and other abuses.

HRW called on the new administration to redress victims of abusive counterterrorism policies -- something which has not happened so far as the victims have effectively been shut out of U.S. courts.

Above all, past abuses should be investigated, documented and publicly reported by a non-partisan commission with subpoena power, and former government officials who were responsible for some of the crimes should not be given immunity from prosecution, the group said.

Last week, Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey who chairs an intelligence oversight panel, issued a statement saying that "while an executive order [to ban torture] will not remove the need for legislation on the issue," if Obama did so, it would "begin to restore our moral leadership on the issue".

Holt also expressed support for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), a coalition of religious groups from all over the country that is lobbying to eliminate the use of torture as a part of U.S. policy.

On Nov. 12, NRCAT held a nationwide action day with more than 50 delegations of religious leaders holding meetings with members of Congress. Thirty religious groups participated in a demonstration in front of the White House, where President Bush is spending his final days in office.

While she agreed on the need to fight terrorism, Mariner of HRW rejected many of the measures taken after the 9/11 terror attacks, emphasising that "the Bush administration entirely disregarded even basic principles of the rule of law."

"The government addressed terrorism in an extremely counterproductive way," Mariner said.

Instead of diminishing the terrorist threat, reports of human rights violations at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere fuelled the recruitment of supporters for militant groups, which argued the U.S. was in fact leading a "war on Islam".

Asked whether she believes Obama will heed the recommendations of HRW, Mariner stressed that by voting against the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to authorise trials by military courts, "Obama has already stood up against these abuses."

The president-elect also explicitly pledged to close Guantanamo during his campaign.

"So we are confident that consistent with his message of change, his actions and his criticism, he is going to repudiate the abusive counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration," Mariner said.

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