On 4 March, the U.S. State Department issued its annual report on human rights around the world. It chastised many other governments for their human rights records, often citing torture of suspects in police custody. Now, a U.S. newspaper is reporting that the American government itself may be at least complicit in some human rights abuses as it pursues its war against terrorism.
Washington, 14 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Human Rights Watch advocacy group says it is investigating a report by "The Washington Post" that the U.S. government is secretly helping to extradite suspected terrorists from one country to another while ignoring legal procedures.
In at least some cases -- according to the paper -- the suspects are taken to countries where they may face torture during interrogation. The report also says American intelligence agents are sometimes closely involved in the interrogation.
Torture is banned by a 1984 United Nations convention that the U.S. has signed. And U.S. law forbids American agents to use torture.
"The Washington Post" article, published on 11 March, cites several examples before and since the September terrorist attacks against America in which the U.S. expedited extradition from one country to another by investigating a suspect, sharing the evidence with foreign governments involved, and even sometimes transporting the suspect to the country seeking extradition.
The most detailed example in the article involved Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, who went to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, from Pakistan in November. Iqbal carried both a Pakistani and an Egyptian passport. The paper gives the following account of Iqbal's case:
Nearly two months after Iqbal arrived in Jakarta, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) urged Indonesian security officials to arrest Iqbal because, they said, he was closely linked to Richard Reid. Reid is the Briton now being held in the U.S. on charges of trying in late December to destroy an American passenger plane mid-flight using explosives hidden in his shoes.
At about the same time, the Egyptian government asked Indonesia to extradite Iqbal because of unrelated links to terrorist activity.
Soon, Iqbal was flown to Egypt in a small, U.S.-registered jet plane. "The Washington Post" says all this was done even though Iqbal had no lawyer and no court hearing.
The U.S. State Department's latest annual report on human rights around the world says Egyptian security forces often torture suspected terrorists.
Security and human rights analysts interviewed by RFE/RL differ on the significance of the newspaper report. But James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation, an independent Washington policy center, said that helping find a suspected terrorist wanted by Egypt, a U.S. ally, and then helping transport him from Indonesia to Egypt is legal as long as Egyptian and Indonesian laws are not violated.
Besides, Phillips said, the practice of helping other countries with extraditions is not only legal and acceptable, but good for the U.S.-led fight against international terrorism:
"I think it's legal for the United States to assist Egypt in recovering someone who's violated their visa laws. And I think it's very practical, given the fact that we're in a war on terrorism," he said.
Phillips also said American intelligence agents should not be concerned that they may be delivering a suspect into the hands of interrogators who may resort to torture: "I don't think you can assume that he will be tortured. If he just tells the truth, then he may not even be touched. And, who knows? There may be many lives that depend on getting information from him. But [whether to torture him or not is] an Egyptian call."
Arthur Helton disagrees. He studies issues involving the rule of law at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York policy institute. Helton said he cannot say for sure whether the cases cited by "The Washington Post" might have been legal. But he told RFE/RL that American agents are expected to act more responsibly: "If the outcome is exposure to torture, then the U.S. certainly would have some responsibility to ensure that that's not the outcome. And if it is the outcome notwithstanding that, it's certainly questionable policy and, at least, may violate a sort of broader duty and responsibility not to expose people to torture or other cruel and degrading treatment."
James Ross, the acting general counsel for Human Rights Watch -- the New York-based advocacy group that is investigating the report -- said if the newspaper story is accurate, it means U.S. intelligence agents are acting illegally.
According to Ross, the UN Convention Against Torture explicitly forbids any member country to take part directly in torture, or to be complicit in it, as is indicated in the newspaper report.
Ross also rejected as spurious the argument by Phillips of the Heritage Foundation that the U.S. cannot be complicit in the torture of a suspect simply because it does not know his jailers would definitely mistreat him: "The U.S. simply can't say, 'Well, just because we don't know, therefore it doesn't matter.'"
Ross said his office is looking into the report to determine whether it is accurate and whether there may be even more cases in which the U.S. government may have become involved in questionable extraditions and interrogations.
In the meantime, both Ross and Helton said the article casts the U.S. government in an unfavorable light at a time when Washington is urging other governments to improve their human rights records.
"When there's a perception that the U.S. is willing to benefit from torture, this certainly undercuts broader efforts to stop the practice of torture worldwide," Ross said.
Or, as Helton of the Council on Foreign Relations put it, the U.S. government should not be promoting the idea that the end -- in this case, winning the war against terrorism -- justifies the means: ignoring the rule of law.