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Afghanistan: Human Rights Advocates Challenge U.S. About Treatment Of Terror Suspects

  • Andrew Tully

Two suspected terrorists have died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and others say they were subjected to harsh questioning. U.S. officials say their interrogation techniques are acceptable, but human rights advocates are expressing concern about the treatment of prisoners captured during the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Washington, 14 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is coming under increasing scrutiny for its treatment of suspected terrorists in its custody.

According to several U.S. news accounts ("The New York Times" and "The Washington Post"), some former detainees at a detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan, run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) say they were subject to torture.

In fact, the deaths of two men being held at Bagram have been classified as "homicides." U.S. authorities are investigating these cases.

Two former detainees told "The New York Times" that their feet were shackled and their hands chained to the ceilings of cells at the Bagram facility. One told the newspaper that he was not allowed to wear any clothing except during questioning or for visits to a toilet.

Human Rights Watch says the U.S. government appears to be permitting mistreatment of detainees during its war on terrorism. The advocacy group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, says he will urge the United Nations Human Rights Commission to adopt a resolution on human rights in light of the war on terror when the agency opens a six-week session on 17 March 17 in Geneva.

U.S. officials say American interrogators do not resort to torture, but they do use techniques like sleep and light deprivation, and temporarily withholding food and medicine. Officials defend such methods as acceptable.

Human Rights Watch's senior legal adviser, James Ross, tells RFE/RL in an interview from his New York office that his group is not necessarily accusing the U.S. government of torturing detainees. But it is concerned by the accounts of former detainees about their treatment: "The difficulty is that the line is not always clear between what is permissible interrogation technique and what could amount to torture. And we are certainly concerned that at least some of the techniques described could in fact amount to torture."

Ross says that what also concerns Human Rights Watch is that the group has repeatedly brought up these concerns in meetings with senior officials of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, and even in a letter to Bush himself. Ross says the administration has promised to respond, but has yet to do so.

"Our view is, these allegations need to be looked into and that the administration has to make it clear that torture is n-o-t being used and that if it is, that steps are taken not only to stop it but to prosecute the people who are responsible for it," Ross says.

A response -- and a positive response -- is important for the United States' credibility, according to Ralph Steinhardt, a professor of law at Washington's George Washington University who specializes in human rights issues.

Steinhardt says U.S. interrogators would face two problems if they tortured suspected terrorists to learn, for example, about attacks being planned by Al-Qaeda or the whereabouts of its leaders. First, they would be lowering the integrity of their government by using torture, which is banned by the international Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a signatory.

Second, Steinhardt says, torture has been shown to be a very unreliable method of extracting information because the detainee would try to end his suffering by telling his questioners what he believes they want to hear, not necessarily the truth: "It has to do with legitimacy and the battle of 'war for ideas.' That is, 'How low do you want to go in order to get information that, after all, is not necessarily reliable if it's the result of torture?'"

Steinhardt notes that the European Court on Human Rights once ruled that while Britain was not guilty of torturing certain members of the Irish Republican Army, its treatment of the prisoners was, in the court's words, "cruel, inhuman and degrading." This, he says, is also banned by the Convention Against Torture.

Ultimately, Steinhardt says, the United States regards itself as a standard for other countries, particularly emerging democracies, to emulate. If it resorts to torture, he says, it will betray these countries' respect, and weaken its argument against nations with poor human rights records.

"Unfortunately, the United States loses whatever credibility it might have in criticizing other governments if it engages in similar acts," Steinhardt says.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis, however. Paul Rosenzweig is a legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy research center in Washington. He tells RFE/RL that the United States has no choice but to harden its tactics as it fights a war with an unconventional, virtually invisible enemy that lurks in hideouts all over the world.

Rosenzweig says he doubts the accounts of the former detainees. He argues that one of the first lessons Al-Qaeda trainees learn is that they must make false statements of mistreatment if they are ever captured.

Even if the detainees' accounts in the U.S. news media are correct, Rosenzweig says, he believes that the interrogation methods they cited are not torture under international convention because they cause only discomfort, not pain. Specifically, he cited the accounts of former detainees who said their handcuffs were attached to the ceilings of their cells.

Rosenzweig says such interrogation practices are not laudable, but they are not illegal or even immoral under the circumstances: "They're not practices that anyone should use routinely, they're not practices that one should hold up as the best examples. But this is the real world we live in. Handcuffing somebody to the ceiling so that he's in an uncomfortable position as a way of persuading him to speak to you is, as I understand it, perfectly acceptable in international law, and certainly acceptable as a means of trying to find out where Al-Qaeda's going to plant the next bomb."

Rosenzweig also challenges Steinhardt's belief that torture defeats its own purpose because information received through such duress is not always reliable. Rosenzweig says the information that U.S. interrogators are gathering from suspected terrorists is not meant to be used in a court of law. Instead, he says, it is merely corroborative -- meant to lead investigators to terror cells, arms caches and the like. If the information is not correct, he says, all that is lost is time, not the integrity of the nation's judicial system: "We are not using this information as an end in itself, which is what a confession would be, but as a means to an end. And as a means, since there's subsequent steps that can be taken to use the information, the potential for false positives just doesn't scare me that much."

Finally, Rosenzweig says he is surprised by the concern being expressed about the fate of men whom he describes as "unlawful combatants" -- men who wear no identifying uniforms and try to blend into the civilian population. Historically, he says, such fighters were summarily executed.

Modern-war fighters have come a long way from that 19th-century practice, he argues. Now, he notes, guerrillas are housed, fed, and given medical treatment. Rosenzweig says no country that treats its prisoners that well should feel ashamed.

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