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U.S.: Amnesty Criticizes Government In Wake Of 11 September

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 28 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The human-rights group Amnesty International unveiled its annual report today, which contains stinging criticism of the United States for the way in which it has detained some 1,200 people in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks.

The Amnesty International Report reviews the human-rights situation in more than 100 countries, most of whose records are far more dismal than Washington's. But Amnesty singles out the United States for setting a dangerous precedent that it says not only undermines American credibility in denouncing human-rights violations in other countries but directly encourages other states to regress in their treatment of detained individuals.

Specifically, Amnesty International criticizes the United States for putting in doubt long-accepted human-rights standards, such as the 1949 Geneva conventions, which outline the treatment that must be accorded to war prisoners.

The United States insists not all the men captured by its forces in Afghanistan qualify as prisoners of war, and therefore not all are legally entitled to protections granted by the conventions while they await trial at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba.

Washington maintains that it is treating all detainees at Guantanamo humanely, in accordance with the document. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently told journalists that all prisoners are receiving "warm showers, toiletries, water, clean clothes, blankets, regular, culturally appropriate meals, prayer mats, and the right to practice their religions."

But Judith Arenaf, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International, disputes this claim. In an interview with RFE/RL, she said the U.S. treatment of prisoners -- especially the method in which they were transported to Guantanamo from the conflict zone -- is unacceptable.

"The images that everyone saw of the prisoners in Guantanamo were extremely shocking for the simple reason that there are techniques that have been used in the past in Russian prison colonies, or rather Soviet prison colonies. These were techniques that had been used by the U.K. government in the Northern Ireland context, of people being tied, people being deprived of all sensory feeling. Those are things which are not acceptable, those are things which the world had actually moved forward to improve. And here was one of the biggest governments in the whole world, a government that had fought very strongly for freedom and human rights, all of a sudden challenging everything it stood for," Arenaf said.

Arenaf said what is perhaps even worse is that the United States is setting a negative example for the rest of the world, which nondemocratic regimes are all too eager to follow.

"We've seen other governments like the government of Egypt and other such governments actually use as an excuse, or justifying far from humane treatment of their own prisoners, the fact that if this is acceptable in the U.S., why should [they] have to uphold higher standards? And I think that's one of the highest risks: that we are actually highlighting in this report the fact that human rights are becoming expendable when they shouldn't because it's actually human rights which can guarantee a basis for security," Arenaf said.

Russia, for one, has repeatedly sought to compare its war in separatist Chechnya to America's war on terrorism, in an attempt to justify its often brutal tactics in the war-torn republic. Amnesty International's chapter on Russia says Russian forces in Chechnya were guilty last year of torture, extrajudicial executions, and of imprisoning people in what the report called "little more than pits."

Amnesty International also condemns Chechen separatist rebels for attacks on civilian members of Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration and for the ill-treatment and unlawful killing of captured Russian soldiers.

Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty International's director for the European region, told RFE/RL that following 11 September and the U.S. government's reaction to those events, it has become increasingly difficult for human-rights advocates to get heard, in Europe and in places like Central Asia.

"It's more difficult to lobby and hold states accountable in Central Asia for the way they treat their prisoners, for example, or to hold them to account for the treaties that they signed up to if some big players in the West that regard themselves as democracies are also being seen to circumvent some of the obligations that have been placed on them, or to attack some of the pillars of the human-rights standards that we do have that have been virtually universally acknowledged," Duckworth said.

Duckworth cites Britain's Antiterror, Crime, and Security Act, passed in December 2001, as a notable example. The law allows the government to detain indefinitely any non-U.K. national on suspicions of terrorism without trial and without any judicial oversight or review.

"Europewide, a couple of things to mention is that, obviously post-11 September, we saw a very significant backlash against the Muslim community in many areas -- attacks on both people and property and also a backlash in terms of legislation -- for example, in the U.K., that we consider to be particularly problematic. So, in that sense, it's been an unfortunate consequence of 11 September."

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