Amnesty International Australia
Feb - March 2005

   The shameful Abu Ghraib scandal of Iraqi prisoner torture at the hands of American soldiers outraged the world.

Who can forget the harrowing image of a hooded detainee, standing on a box, electric wires dangling from his hands? Or the depiction of a man, stripped naked, cowering in terror against the bars of a cell as soldiers threatened him with snarling dogs? Other prisoners were stripped, hooded, forced into sexually humiliating poses and photographed.

After release from Abu Ghraib prison without charge or trial in mid-April 2004, one man, Haidar, told independent investigators: “When the interpreter told us to strip we told him, ‘You are Egyptian and a Muslim and you know that as Muslims we can’t do that’, when we refused to take off our clothes they beat us and tore our clothes off with a blade”.

The incidents of torture, cruelty and degradation in the US-led ‘war on terror’ are grim testimony to the US Government’s abject failure to uphold fundamental human rights in accordance with its obligations under international law. They also represent a flagrant disregard for the standards of wartime conduct outlined in international law.

The torture and mistreatment of prisoners is not restricted to Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and a few aberrant soldiers, as the US Government has claimed. A recent Amnesty International report, Human Dignity Denied: Torture and Accountability in the War on Terror, documents findings of torture and ill-treatment of detainees in US-administered prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

In the report, one of the eight Afghan soldiers arrested by US Special Forces on 1 March 2003 tells how he and fellow detainees were treated “like animals” when taken to the US base in Gardez. An investigation has revealed allegations that they were subjected to beatings, electric shocks and immersion in cold water during their 17 days in custody. One of the detainees, Jamal Naseer, died in custody.

Former detainee Tarek Dergoul recalls, “In Kandahar I was hooded and interrogated at least three or four times a week for up to seven or eight hours a day. My body hair was shaved, including my pubic hair. After three months I was flown to Guantánamo Bay… I was stripped naked, given a full body search and pictures were taken of me naked”.

Released Swedish detainee Mehdi Ghezali told Amnesty International of a punitive regime at the US Guantánamo Bay naval base that showed little respect for human dignity. He said harsh interrogation practices included the use of stripping, loud music, strobe lighting and temperature manipulation over prolonged periods. He saw an Australian detainee (whom Amnesty International believes to be Mamdouh Habib) subjected to harsh sleep deprivation by being moved constantly from one cell to another. “At the end there was blood coming from both his nose and his ears.”

The report reveals that, despite the US Government’s repeated claims that it is committed to what it calls the ‘non-negotiable’ demands of human dignity, in December 2002 the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, authorised “stripping, isolation, hooding, stress positions, sensory deprivation and the use of dogs in interrogations”.

The US Government has fallen into a pattern of abuse in response to what it calls a ‘new paradigm’ set by the atrocities of the attack on New York’s Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. While there are undoubtedly complex challenges and threats in the US-led war in Iraq and escalation of terrorism around the world, the report comprehensively documents the simple fact that the US has violated basic human rights in the name of national security or ‘military necessity’.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Irene Khan, has publicly criticised the US for “openly flouting international law” by turning a blind eye to the allegations of torture and custodial deaths until the now-notorious Abu Ghraib pictures appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

In line with Amnesty International’s longstanding position on the prevention of torture, the report’s core message is that war is no excuse for any government’s failure to uphold human rights, and that one of the best weapons to combat the root cause of terrorism is the full observance of human rights. Tragically, the torture, ill-treatment and incarceration of prisoners without charge, trial or access to family or lawyers in the ‘war on terror’ represents a grave departure from the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and human rights conventions to which the US is a signatory.

Double standards
The report argues that the US administration’s condemnation of torture has been ‘paper thin’, as shown by the series of government memorandums, (now known as the ‘torture memos’) that have come into the public domain since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke.

“These documents suggest that far from ensuring the ‘war on terror’ would be conducted without resort to human rights violations, the [US] administration was discussing ways in which its agents might avoid the international prohibition on torture.”

The report points out that 54 years after the international community adopted the UDHR’s principle that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”, a memorandum was written in the US Justice Department advising on ways to undermine this prohibition.

Damagingly, the torture memos point to how members of the US administration sought ways to push the boundaries of acceptable interrogation techniques and determine ways in which agents could avoid criminal liability for torture.

The report also describes how there has been a noticeable reluctance among senior members of the US administration to call what happened in Abu Ghraib torture, preferring the term ‘abuse’: “This reticence is symptomatic of a tendency by the US – notwithstanding its pivotal role in the adoption of the UDHR and subsequent international human rights instruments – to reject for itself the standards it so often says it expects of others.”

“The human rights violations which the US government has been so reluctant to call torture when committed by its own agents are annually described as such by the US State Department when they occur in other countries. While the State Department reports are positive contributions to the global struggle for human rights, double standards have greatly undermined the credibility of the US’s global discourse on human rights,” the report states.

Unlawful detention continues
On 6 May 2004, US President George Bush offered an apology for the humiliation suffered by Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and their families, but his administration continued to pursue its unlawful detention policies in Guantánamo and elsewhere, to the distress of those held and their relatives, and to the detriment of the rule of law.

According to the report, “A detainee’s right to appear before a court is a fundamental safeguard against arbitrary arrest, ‘disappearance’ and torture. Yet, after the US Supreme Court’s landmark Rasul v. Bush decision in June 2004 that the US courts have jurisdiction over the Guantánamo detainees, the US administration has sought to curtail the impact of that decision, even as allegations of torture and ill-treatment in Guantánamo have continued to emerge.