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     Volume 4 Issue 76 | December 23, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Truths Half-truths and Damned Lies

Farah Ghuznavi

Surely all but the most sceptical of sceptics have been convinced by President Bush's recent assertion that "the US does not torture". After all, what would be the point? As the partial release of a 2004 FBI memorandum clearly states, information extracted by coercive means (i.e., torture) is "suspect at best" (i.e., worthless). And in the more direct language of one commentator, "Information acquired via electrodes is as useful as the European confessions of witchcraft in the 16th century"!

While all this means that the value of intelligence obtained at Guantánamo Bay (and at other locations where the war on terror is being waged) has been cast into further doubt, it also begs the question of how useful the process of "extraordinary rendition" - under which the US has been delivering terror suspects for interrogation in other countries, where the suspects face further imprisonment and torture - actually is!

The recent defence of rendition by the US Secretary of State, as a legitimate method to combat terrorism (while, of course, denouncing torture) is somewhat disingenuous, to say the least. Delivering suspects to countries which have an established record of using torture, while claiming not to support or endorse the use of torture oneself, is more than a little absurd!

If the US does not expect that those terror suspects will be tortured, why then is it delivering them into the hands of known torturers? Surely this is the moral equivalent of contract killings, where someone is paid to commit a murder, but at the behest of the person paying them. While the hit-man's "customer" may not actually get his or her hands dirty directly, the law is in little doubt as to whom the main culprit in that situation actually is, i.e., the one who pays for the service!

Now, according to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, US obligations under the existing international convention against torture "extend to US personnel wherever they are". So perhaps the point of rendition is indeed to ensure that non-US personnel are carrying out any torture that may be taking place…?

But is that in fact the case? There is some evidence to clearly indicate otherwise. The long-standing and much-delayed US military investigation into the deaths and other abuses at Bagram (in Afghanistan) and other detention centres was carried in the New York Times, which obtained a 2,000-page report leaked by a source close to the US investigation.

That report included a number of alleged instances of torture including a prisoner who was chained to a ceiling by his wrists for four days, and then beaten on his legs more than 100 times during a 24-hour period. Other reported abuses included a prisoner being forced to kiss the boots of interrogators, and another being forced to pick plastic bottle tops out of a drum filled with excrement and water.

The allegations of torture that are being made against US forces are not new. The first allegations about prisoner torture surfaced in the Washington Times in December 2002, when it was said that interrogators from the CIA had been subjecting Taleban and Al Qaeda suspects to "stress and duress" techniques, including sleep deprivation, which were of dubious legality.

These allegations were followed up in February 2003, when human rights groups accused the US of using torture against prisoners. The State Department labelled these claims "ridiculous", but just one month later a military coroner concluded that two prisoners who died in custody were killed as a result of "blunt force trauma". Even then, the US military spokesman, Colonel Roger King, strongly denied that the prisoners had been mistreated (UK independent).

The following year, in March 2004, the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch published a report in which it accused US Forces in Afghanistan of using excessive force, carrying out arbitrary detentions and mistreating people in custody. It stated that the Pentagon had not adequately explained the deaths of prisoners in custody, and feared that "appropriate criminal and disciplinary action may never take place". In response, a US military at spokesman said that the report showed "a lack of understanding of the laws of war and of the environment we are facing in Afghanistan".

Two months later, in May 2004, the New York Times published allegations by an Afghan police officer that he was stripped naked and beaten at a US base in Afghanistan. When Human Rights Watch subsequently stated that it had documented "numerous cases of mistreatment of detainees", this was again met with the familiar response that the investigation undertaken by Gen Jacoby, of the US military in Afghanistan, had "found no evidence of abuse taking place… nor was there any evidence of leaders authorising or condoning abuse". A frightening pattern was emerging.

Of course, the pictures that emerged from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq left little room for doubt that abuse was indeed taking place! Nor did it have to be left to the imagination, what kind of abuses some prisoners were being subjected to.

There, with indisputable proof in hand, the US government claimed that these were somehow isolated and extreme examples of "unfortunate" abuses being carried out against prisoners. It was further insisted that these abuses were perpetrated by low-ranking soldiers - despite repeated claims that those higher up had explicitly condoned, and were therefore directly implicated, in the abuses.

There are those who have no doubt of US involvement in torture. According to Amnesty International, the United States is condoning torture and abuse in the name of the war on terror, setting up a latter-day Gulag and creating a new generation of the "disappeared". A report published by the organisation states that the US has used the September the 11th attacks as excuse to ignore international law and create a network of supplicant nations to "subcontract" illegal detention and mistreatment. While US forces are undoubtedly not unique in committing excesses and errors in foreign wars, the so-called "war on terror" as waged by the US seems to have - in the words of the UK Independent - "fostered a very particular culture of power, fear and insecurity in which almost anything goes so long as it is deemed to serve this single cause".

From Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay and particularly in Iraq, the US has flouted almost every international safeguard in the book, and when even the flimsy cover of US law was deemed too protective, prisoners were handed over (through the process of rendition) to regimes even less discriminating about the methods of interrogation that they use.

As for the Secretary of State's assertion that the US is bound by international conventions which prohibit torture, and "extend to US personnel wherever they are", one can only suggest that the US government may wish to inform their personnel of these constraints, since they appear to be singularly unaware of their obligations in this regard…

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