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UN Committee Against Torture Wants Guantanamo Closed

by Matthew T. Clarke

The United Nations Committee Against Torture (the committee) has published a report urging the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Guantanamo). In doing so, the committee of nine international experts stated that the indefinite detention of the prisoners at Guantanamo violates the international ban on torture.

On April 19, 2006, the committee released its report finding that lengthy detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo, in which they are not charged or given access to judicial process, violates the 1984 U.N. Convention Against Torture (the convention). The committee called for Guantanamo?s immediate closure. The U.S. responded that Guantanamo complied with U.S. law and the Guantanamo detainees had access to U.S. courts and lawyers.
Bush-friendly foreign leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen have also called for Guantanamo?s closure. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush?s staunchest ally in the so-called ?war on terror,? has stated that Guantanamo must eventually be closed.

The committee also stated that the U.S. should close all secret detention facilities and publicly condemn any policy of secret detention. It also recommended that a federal law prohibiting torture be enacted and that the U.S. stop ?extraordinary rendition? of suspects to countries where torture is practiced on behalf of the United States and under US direction. Diplomatic assurances that a particular prisoner will not be tortured are insufficient if the prisoner is being sent to a country that systemically violates the convention. The U.S. should also educate its military and police interrogators on the rules and law prohibiting torture of suspects. It should specifically prohibit such techniques as ?water boarding?, ?short shackling?, using dogs to induce fear, causing sexual humiliation, or any other methods constituting torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The U.S. should also review its policies with regard to long-term isolation of prisoners.

The report also recommended that the U.S. provide methods for the detection and investigation of prisoner torture. It further recommended that the U.S. cease limiting the use of civil actions by victims of prisoner abuse and amend the Prison Litigation Reform Act accordingly.

In its supplementary briefing to the committee, Amnesty International (AI) noted that there was evidence of ?widespread torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of detainees held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Iraq and other locations? and that at least 106 prisoners are known to have died in U.S. custody under circumstances listed by the U.S. Army as confirmed or suspected criminal homicides. The actual number of such criminal homicides is believed to be much higher due to cover-ups and lackadaisical prisoner-abuse investigations. In several cases, evidence shows that the prisoners were tortured to death during interrogation. However, the U.S. refused to call these deaths--which were due to beatings, suffocation, and induced hypothermia--torture. In fact, most of the techniques used by the military interrogators are authorized and routine. This includes attaching a sleeping bag over a prisoner?s head using wire then sitting on the prisoner?s chest so that he cannot breathe and dumping cold water on a prisoner before subjecting him to prolonged extreme cold conditions. Amnesty International also decried the use in military tribunals of information and confessions extracted under torture.

Meanwhile, Guantanamo continues to be a prison on the brink of an abyss. Hunger strikes and riots have become the norm there as desperate men, held for up to five years without charges or access to their families, act out their frustrations. The day before the committee?s report was released, Guantanamo prisoners rioted. They were armed with electric fan parts used as improvised weapons. The riot started after guards discovered a prisoner attempting to hang himself and tried to stop him.
Guards broke up the riot by firing sponge grenades from an M-203 launcher and at least five rounds of 18 rubber pellets from a 12-gauge shotgun, injuring six prisoners. The riot, which broke out in Camp 4, involved at least 50 prisoners. There have also been 41 suicide attempts by Guantanamo prisoners, the latest two attempted to overdose on antidepressants the day before the committee?s report was released. A long-lasting hunger strike, involving up to 75 prisoners, was also taking place when the committee?s report was issued. Four of the hunger strikers were being force fed through tubes at that time. 76 prisoners began the hunger strike in August 2005. It peaked in the Fall of 2005 with 131 prisoners participating.

The U.S. delegation to the committee responded to the committee?s report by asserting that none of the techniques constituted torture. State Department attorney John B. Bellinger III, the head of the delegation, noted that there ?is nothing in the convention that says anything about holding people indefinitely.... So it?s outside the scope for them to be calling for the closure of Guantanamo.?

On May 19, 2006, the U.S. released 15 Saudis from Guantanamo by transferring them to Saudi custody. At that time, the U.S. claimed it could not release other prisoners due to concerns about how they would be treated by their own governments. Using this fear of torture excuse, the U.S. continued to incarcerate the prisoners under internationally-condemned conditions, and torture them itself. Several of the Guantanamo prisoners who have been cleared of the charges against them expressed the desire to return to their home countries, even if they faced imprisonment and possible torture there.

In April, 2006, then Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was asked to tour Guantanamo as a prison ?best practices? expert to advise the U.S.
military on how to run the prison. Ironically, during his tenure as governor Romney had only once visited prisons in his home state where the prison system is being criticized for substandard prison conditions. Prison ?expert? Romney is now running for president.

Also in April 2006, the CIA fired senior officer Mary O. McCarthy for allegedly leaking the existence of secret worldwide CIA prisons. CIA officials noted that criminal charges were possible for leaking classified information. Washington Post reporter Dana Priest was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her story revealing the existence of the secret prisons.

In March 2007, the U.S. achieved its first conviction of a Guantanamo terror suspect when an Australian citizen pleaded guilty to assisting a terrorist group in exchange for a nine-month prison sentence that he will be allowed to serve in his native land. The prisoner had been held for five years at Guantanamo since being captured while he tried to flee Afghanistan following the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Taliban government.

Sources: Advanced Unedited Version-UN Committee Against Torture Report dated 19 May 2006, Amnesty International?s Supplementary Briefing to the UN Committee Against Torture dated 3 May 2006, Associated Press, Seattle Times, Times of London, Boston Herald, Washington Post, Miami Herald, New York Times, Costa Costa Times, Los Angles Times, NPR News, Pacifica Radio?s Democracy Now!

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