Alexander G. Higgins / Associated Press – 2006-05-09 08:40:21
GENEVA (May 9, 2006) — The US government told a UN 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 UN panel expressed concern about how the United States defines torture as well as the US delegation’s refusal to give details about interrogation techniques used by the CIA.
“US 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 UN 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 UN committee had seen US documents that allowed techniques regarded as torture by human rights groups, such as forced nakedness, stressful positions and threats.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Stimson conceded to the panel — the UN 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 to the point of nearly drowning.
The waterboarding accusations have been levied against the CIA, but the 25-member US 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 US delegation told the committee that 29 detainees had died in US facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan of what appeared to be abuse or other violations of US law.
There have been 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 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.
Criticism by the UN panel brings no penalties beyond pressure on the government. The committee is expected to issue conclusions at the end of its session May 19.
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