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U.S.: UN Committee Questions Officials On Torture

U.S. treatment of detainees in its war on terrorism is being questioned (epa) PRAGUE, May 5, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Geneva-based UN Committee on Torture began questioning U.S. officials today on a range of issues, including Washington's treatment of detainees and its definition of torture.

This is the first time since the United States declared its war on terror after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that the 10-member UN panel is scrutinizing the practices Washington uses in that global campaign.

U.S. Definition Of Torture

The UN Committee on Torture wants to hear about how the United States defines torture, and whether that definition is in compliance with the UN Convention against Torture.

Why, it's asking, did the U.S. Justice Department two years ago give a seemingly stricter interpretation of torture than the UN? It's also asking what corrective measures the United States has taken in the wake of the prisoner-abuse scandal in Iraq, and it has questions about allegations of secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prisons, and flights transferring terror suspects for possible torture in other countries.

Human rights groups say the hearings are highly significant. "I think it's a really important opportunity for the international community to consider some of the practices currently taking place in the U.S. war against terror as it's been described," said Carla Ferstman, the director of Redress, a London-based group that campaigns against torture. "The very process of this meeting where it will be questioning in detail and quite a lot of length U.S. officials about their policies is in and of itself important."

Secret CIA Flights Questioned

Washington has sent a team of some 25 officials to the Geneva hearings. U.S. delegation head John Bellinger, a State Department legal adviser, said the administration of President George W. Bush was "absolutely committed to uphold its national and international obligations to eradicate torture," and that there have been "relatively few actual cases of abuse" of detainees.

On May 4, Bellinger hit back at allegations over secret CIA flights. He described as "absurd" claims that thousands of suspects had been flown to third countries where they might face torture

But the same day, the UN's special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, said he was just as convinced that Washington does use secret detention centers for some terror suspects.

"We have proof that [there are] people who are in the custody of the United States of America and nobody knows where they are," he said. "That is proof that there are secret places of detention, which means in human rights terms that these people are victims of enforced disappearances which is one of the most serious human rights violations."

The UN committee will issue its conclusions on May 19 on the ongoing hearings in Geneva. It has no power to impose penalties on states. But Ferstman said any recommendations can put countries under some uncomfortable scrutiny.

"Because this is the official body that interprets the [UN torture] convention, the recommendations are particularly weighty because of who they are coming from," she said. "If there is no compliance, there is a possibility for the committee to come back to the state to request and update on what it's doing toward compliancy and through the general UN machinery to keep coming back to the state to encourage them to be more transparent and more compliant."