U.S. Tells U.N. Panel That Officials Are Barred From Using Torture in Questioning Terror Suspects
GENEVA – The U.S. government told a U.N. watchdog Monday that all American officials including intelligence agents are barred from using torture in interrogating terror suspects and other prisoners.
American officials acknowledged, however, that there had been past mistreatment of detainees, and members of the U.N. panel expressed concern about how the United States defines torture as well as the U.S. delegation’s refusal to give details about interrogation techniques used by the CIA.
“U.S. officials from all government agencies are prohibited from engaging in torture at all times and in all places,” John B. Bellinger III, a State Department legal adviser, told the U.N. Committee Against Torture.
Bellinger told the panel that most of the “regrettable incidents or allegations” of detainee mistreatment at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere had occurred several years ago and that laws, training and monitoring have since improved.
“I say this not to minimize their significance, but to emphasize that, without question, our record has improved,” Bellinger said.
Nora Sveaass, an expert from Norway, said the U.N. committee had seen U.S. documents that allowed techniques regarded as torture by human rights groups, such as forced nakedness, stressful positions and threats.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Stimson conceded to the panel the U.N. watchdog for the 1984 anti-torture treaty that the United States had failed to protect detainees in Iraq.
“We feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees,” Stimson said. “We didn’t (protect them) and that was wrong.”
Stimson said the Army was about to release a revised manual on interrogation procedures that bans the practice of waterboarding, in which prisoners are strapped to a plank and dunked in water until the point of nearly drowning.
The waterboarding accusations have been levied against the CIA, but the 25-member U.S. delegation headed by Bellinger refused to discuss intelligence practices.
“Our intelligence agencies have very clear internal guidance. They also consult our Department of Justice,” Bellinger said. “They have been reviewing their obligations since the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act in December. They take their legal obligations very seriously.”
Detention facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were the focus of attention during the periodic review of Washington’s adherence to the Convention Against Torture.
The U.S. delegation told the committee that 29 detainees had died in U.S. facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan of what appeared to be abuse or other violations of U.S. law.
There have been about 800 investigations into allegations of mistreatment in Afghanistan and Iraq, Stimson said. The Defense Department took action against more than 250 service personnel, with 103 courts-martial and 89 service members convicted, he said. Nineteen received sentences of one year or more.
Stimson noted that these figures contrasted with those calculated by Human Rights Watch, which said there had been only 54 convictions and 10 service members sentenced to a year or more in prison.
Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch welcomed the new numbers, but said they were still disappointing.
“There hasn’t been sufficient accountability for abuse and torture that has been fairly widespread,” Daskal said. “There’s been no convictions as far as we know for chain-of-command responsibility. And 19 criminal convictions for more than a year is very low given the severity and pervasiveness of the instances of abuse.”
The American Civil Liberties Union presented Bellinger with a petition signed by 51,000 Americans asserting the government was responsible for “torture, government kidnapping, indefinite detention.”
“These are not ideas we associate with the United States of America,” said the petition. “We demand our country back.”
The organization also gave the committee a book with more than 200 pages of U.S. documents that “clearly prove that the abuse of detainees was systemic and widespread,” said Jamil Dakwar, staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The 141 signatories to the anti-torture treaty take turns appearing before the U.N. watchdog. The U.S. appearance was the first since after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Criticism by the U.N. panel brings no penalties beyond pressure on the government. The committee is expected to issue conclusions at the end of its session on May 19.
Associated Press writer Sam Cage contributed to this report.