The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release


US: Detainee Death Investigations Welcome But Should Go Further

Expand Mandate of Justice Department’s Criminal Inquiries


The US Attorney General's decision to conduct a full criminal investigation into the deaths of two detainees in US custody is a necessary but insufficient step towards justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The Obama administration should pursue the full scope of detainee torture and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

In his announcement on June 30, 2011, US Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. reiterated the administration's position that it would not prosecute any US official who acted in good faith and within the scope of Justice Department legal guidance.

"While pursuing investigations into the deaths of two detainees is a good first step, they should not be limited to those who acted beyond departmental authorization," said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. "Torture doesn't become legal just because some Justice Department lawyers improperly sanctioned the practice."

A report from the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility issued in February 2010 found that the lawyer responsible for drafting legal memos authorizing waterboarding and other abusive methods of interrogation had "violated his duty to exercise independent legal judgment and render thorough, objective and candid legal advice," while the senior lawyer who signed off on the memos had "acted in reckless disregard" of ethical obligations. But a senior Justice Department official overturned those findings and instead concluded that the lawyers had "exercised poor judgment."

The US government is under obligation, under both US law and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which the US is a party, to prevent, investigate and prosecute torture and other ill-treatment.

The investigation into the deaths of the two detainees was part of an inquiry into the interrogations of 101 detainees led by Assistant US Attorney John Durham, originally appointed by the Bush administration in January 2008, to investigate the destruction of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) videotapes showing interrogations of terrorism suspects. The tapes were reportedly ordered destroyed in November 2005 by Jose A. Rodriguez, then head of the CIA's clandestine service. Holder expanded Durham's mandate in August 2009, to include alleged abuses against CIA detainees that went beyond Justice Department authorization.

In November 2010, Durham announced that he would not pursue criminal charges for the destruction of the CIA videotapes that allegedly depicted the torture of detainees Abu Zubaydah and Adb al-Rahim al Nashiri while they were being held in a secret CIA "black site" in Thailand in 2002.

The US record on accountability for detainee abuse has been poor, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has collected information regarding some 350 alleged cases of torture and ill-treatment involving more than 600 US military and civilian personnel.

"Despite overwhelming evidence now available in the public domain about numerous and systematic abuses, not a single senior level official has been has been held accountable and few military personnel have been punished," Prasow said.

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.