UN panel condemns U.S. torture

The United Nations Committee Against Torture has asked the U.S. to shut down the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility where prisoners are being held in hellish conditions without recourse to legal counsel or trial.

At hearings in Geneva May 5-8, a panel of 10 independent experts examined U.S. compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This is the first time U.S. compliance has been examined by the UN committee since 9/11.

The U.S. is one of the 141 signers of the Convention Against Torture, which completely bans torture, whether in peace, war or armed conflict.

The U.S. last appeared before the committee in May 2000. At that time the UN body criticized practices in U.S. domestic prisons, such as use of electroshock weapons, excessively harsh conditions in super-maximum security prisons, and abuses against women including sexual abuse by guards and shackling while pregnant and during labor. Such practices have not only continued to be used in U.S. prisons but have been exported to U.S. facilities abroad.

Since 9/11, the U.S. has been holding hundreds of detainees at facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba, where routine interrogation practices, cited by the UN committee in an 11-page report issued May 19, include “hooding, stripping and shackling of detainees in painful positions as well as using military dogs to intimidate blindfolded detainees; prolonged isolation; deprivation of food and sleep; and exposure to extremes of temperature.” The U.S. has also been accused of operating secret CIA prisons known as “black sites,” and transporting detainees to countries which routinely use torture to elicit information.

The May 19 report called for closing the Guantanamo detention facility and releasing detainees or giving them access to a judicial process. It said the U.S should guarantee that no one is detained in secret facilities and should provide the numbers, names and nationalities of all detainees at U.S.-controlled facilities. It called for eradication of all forms of torture and ill treatment of prisoners by U.S. military personnel in any territory under U.S. jurisdiction, including interrogation techniques that constitute torture such as mock drownings or sexual humiliation.

A May 3 Amnesty International report says torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees by U.S. forces is widespread. The AI report states there is clear evidence that much of the physical and psychological abuse stems directly from officially sanctioned procedures and policies including interrogation techniques approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for use in Guantanamo and later exported to Iraq. A now declassified document with Rumsfeld’s signature calls for various forms of harsh interrogation including sleep deprivation, extreme environments (hot or cold), holding prisoners naked and keeping them in painful positions such as squatting with feet and hands shackled to the floor.

The evidence shows that these are not the “aberrant acts of irresponsible or immature individuals but a consistent pattern of abuse that reflects government policy,” said Joshua Rubenstein, Amnesty International USA northeast regional director.

The AI report says the U.S. has not yet prosecuted a single official, military officer or private contractor, for torture or war crimes related to its occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan or the “war on terror.” According to Curt Goering, AI USA senior deputy executive director, “The heaviest sentence imposed on anyone to date for a torture-related death while in U.S. custody was five months — the same sentence you might receive for stealing a bicycle.” The five-month sentence resulted from the death of a 22-year-old Afghani taxi driver who was hooded, chained to a ceiling, then kicked and beaten until dead. Goering emphasizes that “the U.S. government is not only failing to eradicate torture but it is actually creating a climate in which torture can flourish.”

Criticism by the UN panel has no penalties beyond international condemnation, but human rights observers say it could sway U.S. public opinion and therefore the government.