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Human Rights Watch: Official U.S. Policy to Blame for Torture

by Pranjal Tiwari

In a 38-page report, a human rights organization slams the US for its “see no evil, hear no evil” policy on torture and for giving US troops “impunity for systematic abuse” of foreign captives.

June 16, 2004 – A recently released report from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) places the blame for torture by US forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and other locations around the world firmly on the policies of the Bush administration.

In the 38-page report titled The Road to Abu Ghraib, HRW describes the pattern of official policy decisions the group says encouraged the use of torture and prisoner abuse by US soldiers, as well as subsequent "cover-ups" to quash any allegations of abuse. HRW’s conclusions provide more evidence to counter statements by US officials that instances of torture resulted from a lack of discipline among frontline troops.

"The only exceptional aspect of the abuse at Abu Ghraib may have been that it was photographed," the report’s introduction explains.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, a privately funded non-governmental organization, said in a press statement last week: "The horrors of Abu Ghraib were not simply the acts of individual soldiers. Abu Ghraib resulted from decisions made by the Bush administration to cast the rules aside."

Among these decisions, HRW highlights as pivotal the post-September 11, 2001 moves by members of the Pentagon, Justice Department, and White House Counsel’s Office to provide legal arguments suggesting the US was not bound by international law. According to HRW, officials rejected international regulations by labeling prisoners in the so-called "war on terror" as "enemy combatants" and subsequently detaining them in "off-shore, off-limits" prisons such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. These moves, the report says, constituted "a policy to evade international law."

HRW cites comments from Cofer Black, former director of the CIA’s counterterrorism unit, who testified to Congress that "after 9/11 the gloves came off." Secretary of Defense Donald Donald Rumsfeld is also cited in the report as having justified the torture of prisoners. He is quoted as falsely claiming captives "do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention" as long as they are labeled under a new term, "unlawful combatants," instead of the traditional "prisoners of war."

Also mentioned are memos from officials, including one from White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to President Bush, that point to official involvement at the highest level in encouraging or covering up acts of torture.

"Even after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke," the report says, "Secretary Rumsfeld continued to take a loose view of the applicability of the Geneva Conventions. On May 5, 2004, he told a television interviewer the Geneva Conventions ‘did not apply precisely’ in Iraq but were ‘basic rules’ for handling prisoners." According to international human rights groups, however, as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, the United States is bound by their rules.

In the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, soldiers systematically "softened up" detainees by limiting their food, reversing sleep patterns, shackling them in so-called "stress positions," and interrogating them in sessions of up to twenty hours. HRW cites a 2003 story in the Washington Post, which said that the use of such techniques had to be deemed "militarily necessary," thus requiring the approval of Pentagon officials. Until the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib were released, HRW says this policy was enforced by a "see no evil, hear no evil" approach from officials.

A similar situation was observed in the post-invasion scenarios of Afghanistan and Iraq, where US troops were found by HRW to have been given "impunity for systematic abuse." In the former case, the report notes that US troops have arrested and detained "tens of thousands of Afghans and other nationals" and employed interrogation methods that include "sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, and forcing detainees to sit or stand in painful positions for extended periods of time."

Referring specifically to Iraq -- where it estimates 12,000 people have been taken into custody and detained for "weeks or months" -- the report notes that torture is not limited to isolated incidents, and is used to fulfill part of the function of a military occupation that is facing armed opposition.

"What is clear is that abusive treatment used after September 11 on suspects in the ‘war on terror’ came to be considered permissible as well in an armed conflict to suppress resistance to a military occupation," the report says. "Procedures used in Afghanistan and Guantánamo were imported to Iraq, including the use of ‘stress and duress’ tactics and the use of prison guards to set the conditions for the interrogation of detainees."

Particularly worrying, writes HRW, were episodes of deaths in custody, and "disappearances" of certain prisoners, who were being held at "undisclosed locations" with no oversight of their conditions and "in most cases no acknowledgement they are even being held." HRW currently estimates that there are thirteen such "disappeared" detainees, taken into custody in various countries, including Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates. Such "disappearances" in custody were possibly "unprecedented in US history," according to the report.

"The Bush administration apparently believed that the new wars it was fighting could not be won if it was constrained by ‘old’ rules..." says the report. "Ironically, the administration is now finding that it may be losing the war for hearts and minds around the world precisely because it threw those rules out."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Pranjal Tiwari is a contributing journalist.

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