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Iraq: Treatment Of Prisoners At Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb -- Abuse Or Torture?

The reported abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. and British guards has been met with universal anger, from the West to the Middle East. Critics have used strong language to express their revulsion at the behavior depicted in photographs of the mistreatment. But do these pictures show what can be called abuse, or is it something more -- torture?

Washington, 4 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, spoke out on 1 May in Baghdad. "Those prisoners are not criminals,” he said. “They are more like political prisoners. This incident, this horrible practice, should not pass just like that. We demand an official apology from the United States of America to the Iraqi people and to these prisoners who have been violated."

Al-Yawir was reacting to photographs -- first shown on U.S. television last week and then broadcast around the world -- that show naked Iraqi detainees being subjected to sexual humiliation and other ill-treatment in the presence of laughing U.S. guards at Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb prison.

"The U.S. government itself, in the annual Department of State reports on human rights practices, describes the type of abuse that occurred at Abu Ghurayb as torture when it was perpetrated by other countries." -- Amnesty International spokesman
U.S. President George W. Bush has asked the Pentagon to make sure that appropriate action is taken against those responsible for what he called these "appalling acts." So far, severe reprimands have been issued to six officers and noncommissioned officers who served in supervisory positions at the prison. A milder "letter of admonishment" was issued to a seventh officer.

The behavior has been condemned by the Muslim world and beyond variously as abuse, an atrocity, a breach of international conventions, or torture.

Are the acts depicted in the photographs torture -- or merely abusive behavior? That is a difficult question to answer, according to James Ross, the senior legal adviser to Human Rights Watch in New York. "No one has been able to put together a clear-cut definition of where mistreatment ends and torture begins,” he told RFE/RL. “A certain kind of ill-treatment, for example, done once or something done for a short period of time, may not be torture. But if it is done over an extended period of time, it could very well be torture."

Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions prohibits cruel treatment and torture of prisoners, including "humiliating and degrading treatment." Article 1 of the UN's 1985 Convention Against Torture sets four conditions for designating an act as torture. Torture is defined as any act that is intentional; that causes severe pain or suffering; that is used to obtain information, punish, intimidate, or coerce; and that has been authorized by someone acting in an official capacity.

Ross said the sexual nature of the poses could be viewed as torture if the subjects suffer severe psychological damage or if they are from societies or religions where public sexual -- especially homosexual -- activity is forbidden, such as the Muslim world. "What is simply mistreatment in one place could amount to torture somewhere else,” Ross said. “The question is, what is the impact on the person who the harm is being done to?"

Ross also cited the photograph of an Iraqi prisoner who is standing on a small box, his head covered by a hood and his hands attached to wires. The man reportedly was told -- falsely -- that if he fell off the box, he would be electrocuted. If this account is true, Ross said, then the man's captors probably are guilty of torture because the victim's fear is just as great even if he only believes that he will be electrocuted.

Amnesty International has less trouble seeing a distinction between abuse and torture. In a statement issued on 30 April, it referred to what it called "torture and ill-treatment" at Abu Ghurayb.

Amnesty's Washington spokesman, Alistair Hodgett, told RFE/RL that the organization was merely following the lead of the U.S. government in using the word "torture."

"The U.S. government itself, in the annual Department of State reports on human rights practices, describes the type of abuse that occurred at Abu Ghurayb as torture when it was perpetrated by other countries. So we only need to look as far as the U.S. government to see that they condemned these very same practices as torture," Hodgett said.

Hodgett said that in the State Department's most recent report on how governments honored -- or dishonored -- human rights in 2003, countries like Pakistan and Jordan are accused of similar humiliating behavior, which the report defines as torture.

But Hodgett said Amnesty does not use the term "torture" lightly. He said his group always makes it clear that such behavior might be abuse, but at times fall short of torture. "We tend to use the co-joined terms 'ill-treatment or torture' or 'ill-treatment that may be tantamount to torture.' The context matters enormously," he said. "That's why the definitions reflect that ambiguity. But I think there are cases that are beyond any dispute as being tantamount to torture. Not everything that went on at Abu Ghurayb may have been torture, but at the end of the day, they're all prohibited."

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have joined other critics in calling for a thorough and independent investigation of the reports. Some, like al-Yawir of the Iraqi Governing Council, want the United Nations and the Red Cross to be involved.

Hodgett, however, said it is Washington's responsibility to get to the bottom of the scandal. But Hodgett said the U.S. Defense Department should not be in charge of the investigation, noting that the U.S. military has yet to issue a report it promised on accusations of similar abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan.

Instead, Hodgett said, the probe should be handled by a specially created commission like the one inquiring into the government's preparedness before the attacks of 11 September 2001. He said only a commission with such independence will be able to find out whether the reported abuse was an aberration by a few military police, or a failure of policy by overzealous superior officers.

In addition to the seven officers who have been reprimanded, six members of a U.S. Army Reserve unit assigned to Abu Ghurayb prison face courts-martial on charges of assault, cruelty, indecent acts, and maltreatment of detainees. Two civilian contractors were also reportedly involved in the abuse at the prison.

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