Jewish World Review March 7, 2003 / 3 Adar II, 5763
Rights on the Rack: Alleged torture in terror war imperils U.S. standards of humanity
In Afghanistan, it is hardly surprising to find two dead bodies with signs of torture. This week, however, a shocking U.S. military coroner's report also suggested that the most likely suspect in the homicides was the U.S. government. Even more disturbing is emerging evidence that the United States may be operating something that would have seemed unimaginable only two years ago: an American torture facility.
Credible reports now indicate that the government, with the approval of high-ranking officials, is engaging in systematic techniques considered by many to be torture.
U.S. officials have admitted using techniques that this nation previously denounced as violations of international law. One official involved in the "interrogation center" in Afghanistan said "if you don't violate someone's human rights, you probably aren't doing your job."
For months, international human rights groups have been protesting activities at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. In a closed-off part of the base, the CIA has constructed an "interrogation center" out of metal shipping containers. Last year, reports began to surface that the CIA was getting information the old-fashioned way -- by breaking suspects physically, except when they inconveniently die.
There is a striking consistency to these accounts, including those from unnamed U.S. officials. Following the arrest of terrorist suspect Abu Zubeida last year after he was shot in the chest, groin and thigh, U.S. officials admitted withholding painkillers as an inducement to force information from him. For part of his interrogation, John Walker Lindh was held naked in an unheated metal container in the dead of winter and duct-taped to a stretcher with a bullet in his leg.
The latest allegation concerns two men who died while guests of the CIA. According to the military coroner, both men show "blunt force trauma" that contributed to their deaths. They died within a week of each other at the base, one of a pulmonary embolism and one of a heart attack. Both cases are now officially listed as homicides.
One U.S. official is quoted as predicting that "this investigation will not go well for us."
U.S. Special Forces troops have been accused of beating suspects before turning them over for exposure to other techniques, such as being kept awake for days or forced to stand or kneel for long periods in painful positions. Witnesses also reported the use of bright lights and loud noises to reduce suspects to blithering idiots through sleep deprivation.
To the amazement of the international community, the U.S. government has openly admitted that it is now using such "stress and duress techniques." These practices would be unconstitutional -- if not criminal -- if committed in the United States.
However, the government insists that it can use the techniques abroad and that they fall just short of a technical definition of torture.
Respected international organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and other groups disagree and have condemned the techniques as flagrant violations of international law. Though not declaring them to be torture, the European Court of Human Rights found in 1978 that identical practices used by the British in Ireland were "inhuman" and in violation of various international agreements.
Among the violations is the denial of rights under the Geneva Convention, which states in Article 17 that "no physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatsoever."
There is no retroactive clause: The U.S. cannot round up suspects, torture them and, if they die, retroactively label them enemy combatants outside of the Geneva Convention.
The Bush administration position is also dangerously shortsighted: Its alleged use of torture puts every service member in any Iraq war at risk. Saddam Hussein can now cite the U.S. in support of his taste for torture.
Hussein missed his opportunity to market his services. When U.S. techniques have proved unavailing, officials have transferred suspects to countries that we have previously denounced for grotesque violations of human rights. Suspects are simply shipped to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Morocco with a list of questions for more crude torture techniques.
One official involved in these interrogations explained that "we don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them."
This week, West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller actually encouraged the U.S. to hand over the recently arrested Al Qaeda suspect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to another country for torture. Whatever legal distinction Rockefeller sees in using surrogates to do our torturing, it is hardly a moral distinction. As a result, we are now driving the new market for torture-derived information. We have gone from a nation that once condemned torture to one that contracts out for torture services.
Instead of continuing our long fight against torture, we now seek to adopt more narrow definitions to satisfy our own acquired appetite for coercive interrogations. If the U.S. is responsible for the deaths of the two men in Afghanistan, it is more than homicide. It would be suicide for a nation once viewed as the very embodiment of human rights.
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JWR contributor Jonathan Turley is Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School.
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© 2002, Jonathan Turley