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The Sun Never Sets On Torture in American Military Prisons

by Matthew T. Clarke

PLN has reported extensively on some of the issues surrounding the treatment of prisoners in the American military prisons which were set up to hold people suspected of committing or supporting terrorism. This ranges from the murder, torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan [PLN Dec. 2004, p. 26; June 2004, p. 1], to the lawlessness in Guantanamo [PLN May 2005, p. 30; June 2005, p. 40], the existence of undocumented "ghost" prisoners [PLN Dec. 2004, p. 39], the abuse of military medicine in those prisons [PLN, Apr. 2005, p.1], the government policies allowing torture of such military prisoners [PLN Dec. 2004, p. 1; Nov. 2004, p. 35; Sept. 2004, p. 1] and the use of private, unmarked jets to transport prisoners to third-world countries that condone torture. As time goes on, despite the storm of publicity surrounding such famous cases of prisoner abuse as Abu Ghraib, the reported incidents are not decreasing and the details being released about previously-known cases are gruesome. Meanwhile, no high-ranking official has faced criminal charges because of the policy of torture being followed by U.S. military personnel.

New Allegations Of Torture in Iraq

However, three members of the Army's elite 82nd Airborne Division, one of them a decorated West Point graduate, have reported to Congress and Human Rights Watch that fellow soldiers in the 1st Brigade, 504th Parachute Battalion based at Camp Mercury near Fallujah routinely abused prisoners in Iraq. The abuse was daily and included causing severe injuries, such has broken limbs, and abuse similar to that depicted in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. The abuse was often for the entertainment or release of frustration of the soldiers and involved both soldiers assigned to guard the prisoners and those with other duties.

82,000 Plus Imprisoned in "War on Terror"

In November 2005, the U.S. admitted that it had imprisoned more than 82,000 people since 9-11. At that time, the U.S. military acknowledged holding prisoners overseas, including 13,814 in Iraq and about 500 at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), Cuba. Of the prisoners in Iraq, 5,569 have been imprisoned over six months, 3,801 more than a year and 229 more than two years. 108 prisoners have reportedly died in CIA or military custody as of March 2005. This includes at least 26 deaths under investigation as murders.
All told, according to a November 2005 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee, 400 investigations of criminal prisoner abuse charges have been conducted resulting in 95 members of the military being charged and 75 convictions.

Secret CIA "Black Site" Prisons With "Ghost Prisoners"

The figures apparently did not include the off-the-rolls "ghost prisoners" incarcerated in secret CIA facilities known as "black sites." Little is know about the black sites. It is known that the CIA has set up around 20 facilities since 9-11, the most infamous one being the "Salt Pit," which was set up in an abandoned factory near Kabul, Afghanistan.

Black sites are suspected to be operated in, or to have been operated in eight countries, including Afghanistan, Thailand, Cuba and Poland. These facilities practice what, according to a 2004 report by CIA Inspector General John Helgerwon, are referred to as "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques." Such techniques include exposing the prisoners to extreme cold, depriving them of sleep, forcing them to remain in stressful positions, slapping, shaking and mock executions using a technique known as "waterboarding" which causes a prisoner who is strapped to a board to believe he is drowning. These techniques have been authorized since mid-March 2002. However, Helgerwon's report noted that they "appear to constitute cruel and degrading treatment under the (Geneva) convention." The techniques are also controversial within the CIA where many field officers believe they produce unreliable results.

"What real CIA field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Soviets and Nazis," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and former deputy directory of the counterterrorism office of the State Department.

Indeed, it appears that the U.S. has made serious tactical blunders based upon faulty information extracted using enhanced interrogation. This includes a claim by Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi that became the basis for the government's claim that Iraq was training Al Qaeda terrorists on biochemical weapons. It is now known that al Libbi lied to avoid further torture, saying what he thought his captors wanted to hear.

The techniques can also produce other undesirable results. In one case, a junior officer at the Salt Pit ordered a prisoner to be doused in water and left outside overnight. The next morning, he was dead of hypothermia.

Why does the U.S. have black sites? To circumvent U.S. law that makes it illegal for the government to hold prisoners in secret isolation on U.S. soil, according to legal experts and intelligence officials. They also note that keeping prisoners isolated in secret prisons violates the laws of some of the countries they are located in, where the right to a lawyer or to present a defense is secured by the countries' constitutions.

Controversy With European Allies

The figures also apparently do not include the 100 to 150 people kidnapped by the CIA and sent to other countries that condone torture in a process known as "rendition." It is this process of kidnapping suspects from or transhipping them through European countries that has U.S. allies upset. Not, only does kidnapping violate the laws of the countries, but the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which those countries and the U.S. are signatories. Such techniques are also prohibited by U.S. military law. Currently, parliaments in Italy, Canada, Sweden, France and Holland are pursuing inquiries into CIA renditions in those countries. In November 2005, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles demanded an investigation into whether the CIA was operating secret prisons in Europe following media reports of such prisons in Poland and Romania. Human Rights Watch had obtained the 2003 flight logs of a CIA-chartered private jet used to transport prisoners and they showed the use of an airstrip in Szymany, which is near a military training site in northeastern Poland, and the Mihail Kogalniceanu military airfield Romania. The Polish and Romanian governments, both of which strongly supported the U.S.'s war on terrorism and sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, denied the existence of secret prisons in their countries.

There are two categories of the approximately 100 secret CIA prisoners. Around 30 are high-value major terrorism suspects who are being held at CIA-funded and operated black sites. These prisoners are kept in complete isolation in dark, often underground, cells with no contact with anyone outside the CIA and no acknowledgement of their existence to the outside world. They are denied all human, civil and legal rights.

The remaining 70 are less important terrorism suspects with limited intelligence value. Most of them were subjected to rendition to intelligence services in Jordan, Afghanistan, Morocco or Egypt after having been interrogated at a black site.

History of "Black Sites"

The origin of black sites lies in a presidential finding (a document authorizing covert activity) signed by President Bush on September 17, 2001. The finding authorized the CIA to disrupt terrorist activities and included permission to kill, capture and/or detain terrorists throughout the world.

The use of black sites and rendition is legal under the finding, according to some former intelligence and government officials.

The original black sites were metal shipping containers set up at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as an improvised measure to deal with the hundreds of prisoners captured by U.S.-supported forces fighting the Taliban in 2001. Most of the prisoners were turned over to the Northern Alliance and many died of asphyxiation in the winter of 2001. The grizzly report of those deaths caused the CIA to set up the Salt Pit, which was also the CIA's substation. However, the road outside Kabul leading to the Salt Pit could not be secured and the CIA prison was eventually moved to Bagram Air Base. It was later moved off the base.

By mid-2002, the CIA had worked out black site deals with Thailand and an Eastern European country. This was funded by approximately $100 million included in a secret annex to the first supplemental Afghanistan funding appropriation. The CIA's first two major suspects, Abu Zubaida (operations chief for Bin Laden) and Ramzi Binsalshibh (suspected 9-11 planner) were taken to the Thailand black site. However, published reports in June 2003 revealed the existence of the Thailand site and the Thai government told the CIA to close it.

By early 2003, the CIA had black site deals with other countries. In 2004, the CIA closed a small black site it had been operating at Guantanamo Bay because of U.S. courts beginning to exercise jurisdiction over that military base.

CIA and Military Prisoner Policy Splits Government

U.S. claims of obeying the law and not using torture in the CIA interrogations ring hollow when one considers that the government sought an exception for CIA employees from the McCain amendment banning "cruel., inhuman or degrading treatment" of prisoners by U.S. personnel which was passed by the Senate 90-9 in October 2005 as an amendment to a $445 billion defense spending bill. The administration had opposed the amendment, but ceased doing so when it became apparent that McCain had overwhelming support for it in the Senate. The Army field manual had already proscribed such treatment. Meanwhile, the administration is sharply divided over its detention policies with military lawyers and some State and Defense Department officials seeking to move the military's detention policy into closer accord with international law in the hopes of preventing future prisoner abuse scandals. Opponents to this idea, notably Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff David S. Addington, object to subjecting U.S. personnel to international law, especially the Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions which governs the treatment of prisoners in wartime. In February 2002, President Bush decided that the Geneva Conventions would not apply to prisoners captured in the so-called war on terrorism. The Bush administration has also opposed the formation of the International Court of Criminal Justice for the same reason--that it might be used to prosecute U.S. government and military personnel for war crimes.

Escapes Plague U.S. Military Prisons

There have been a rash of escapes from U.S. military prisons. In July 2005, Omar al-Farouq, a suspected Al Qaida leader, led three others in an escape from a military prison at Bagram Air Base near Kabul, a military prison that holds over 500 prisoners.
The four produced a videotape in which they bragged of plotting the escape to occur when most guards were off duty and picking locks before negotiating a minefield to win their freedom. The belated acknowledgement of al-Farouq's identify angered the Indonesian government, which claimed it had been kept out of the loop despite having captured al-Farouq in 2002 and turned him over to the U.S. Al-Farouq is suspected of planning a series of car and truck bombings to occur in Southeast Asia on the anniversary of 9-11. He also attended flight school so he could pilot a suicide mission.

Al-Farouq's identify was revealed in the context of a prosecution of Army Sgt. Alan Driver, a reservist form the 377th MP Company, for abusing al-Farouq and two other prisoners, one of whom died. Captain Christopher Beiring and Spc. Nathan Adam Jones, along with 11 other soldiers in the 377th, also face charges related to prisoner abuse.

On September 24, 2005, Taliban insurgents stormed a prison and a police headquarters at Ali-Sher in southeastern Khost province, Afghanistan. They used assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in the attack which left one prisoner dead, two soldiers wounded and destroyed a weapons stockpile.

There have also been multiple attacks around Abu Ghraib prison, including a suicide, car bombing of a U.S. convoy on September 17, 2005, that destroyed three vehicles.
Insurgents fired seven mortar shells and used rocket-propelled grenades to damage three armored vehicles at the prison during the same attack. On September 27, 2005, insurgents attacked a prisoner-transport bus going to Abu Ghraib. Two prisoners were killed and 12 were wounded in the attack which also killed two Iraqi policemen.

British Army Breaks Soldiers Out Of Jail

On September 19, 2005, the British army used tanks to break down the walls of the central jail in Basra, Iraq, allowing 150 Iraqi prisoners to escape. The mission was to rescue two British citizens, apparently undercover commandos, who had been arrested and jailed by local authorities for shooting two Iraqi policemen. Mohammed al-Waili, governor of the province, called the British attack "barbaric, savage and irresponsible."
"A British force of more than ten tanks backed by helicopters attacked the central jail and destroyed it. This is an irresponsible act," said al-Waili.

We Trained 'Em Well-The Rise of Iraqi Commandos

The most feared men on the mean streets of Baghdad these days are those wearing combat uniforms, bulletproof vests and wrap-around sunglasses. No, they're not U.S. soldiers, they are commandos, special units of Iraqi security forces that a variety of government entities are allowed to maintain. They have catchy titles like Lion Brigade, Scorpion Brigade, and, most feared of all, Volcano Brigade. The idea was for the commandos to help stabilize the capital. However, like many things in Iraq, the ideal is far from reality.

The reality is that the commandos tend to be made up of either all-Sunni or all-Shiites, often from the same area or former military or paramilitary units. For instance, the Volcano Brigade is primarily Shiites from the Iran-backed Badr military, the most powerful Shiite milita.

Regardless of whether Sunni or Shiite, the commandos are apparently being used to terrorize victim populations and carry out personal vendettas and reprisals against other groups of people. Thus, the story of men being arrested by ski-masked men in commando uniforms only to be found later murdered, execution-style is common. This may explain why the civilian death toll in Baghdad rose by about 20% in 2005.

Commandos are not cowed by police. They are as likely to seize and torture or kill Iraqi police as they are ordinary citizens. Some surviving policemen report having been abducted and beaten for hours by commandos.

The U.S. military helped set up the commandos under the guidance of James Steele, an ex-U.S. Army Special Forces officer. In the 1980s, Steele trained the El Salvadorian army's counterinsurgency units. Those units were accused of a pattern of committing atrocities.

U.S. Discovers Iraqi Ministry's Torture Prison

On November 13, 2005, U.S. forces looking for a missing Iraqi teenager discovered a secret underground prison holding 173 men near an Iraqi Interior Ministry compound. Many showed signs of beatings and starvation. Many of them showed bruises from severe beatings, some were paralyzed and some had their skin ripped off parts of their bodies. The prisoners were suspected of supporting the Sunni insurgency. Interior Ministry officials initially denied that the prisoners had been tortured, but later admitted that at least seven of the prisoners had been tortured after it was revealed that torture instruments had been found at the prison. The prisoners were transferred to the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison. The Iraqi government has started an investigation of the prisoner abuse.

Gitmo Hunger Strike Continues

According to the U.S. military, 27 prisoners at the Gitmo military prison were on hunger strike as of November 1, 2005. 24 of them were being force-fed through feeding tubes. Lawyers for the prisoners say the figure is closer to 200 prisoners participating in the hunger strike. Prisoners have accused Gitmo medics of intentionally, painfully inserting the nasal feeding tubes without using painkillers and using recycled soiled feeding tubes without sterilization. This is done, the prisoners allege, to punish them for the hunger strike. The background of the hunger strike, which started August 8, 2005, was previously reported in the PLN.

In October 2005, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the government to inform the lawyers of prisoners being force-fed of their status and produce their medical records. Also in October 2005, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld refused a request by U.N. human rights investigators to meet with Gitmo prisoners.

Meanwhile, the isolation, humiliation and despair of the prison has led one Gitmo prisoner to attempt suicide at least nine times. The U.S. alleges that Jumah Dossari, 32, who was captured in the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan, is an Al Qaeda member or sympathizer. Dossari claims he is innocent, was in Afghanistan supervising a Saudi mosque-building charity and was fleeing the war against the Taliban when captured. He claims a camp snitch framed him. He also claims to have been abused by guards and interrogators, claims the military refuses to address citing concerns for Dossari's privacy, except to confirm one episode of an interrogator's unauthorized smearing of menstrual blood on Dossari.

As of November 2005, there had been 36 suicide attempts by 22 prisoners Guantinmo Bay. None were successful.

U.S. Releases 1,565 Abu Ghraib Prisoners

In October, the U.S. released 1,565 prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison to honor the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan and the feast of Al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. None of the prisoners had been convicted of violent crimes according to the military. They did not explain why prisoners who were not convicted of violent crimes were being held in a maximum-security prison.

Sources: Houston Chronicle; Seattle Times; New York Times; Sacramento Bee; ABC News; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; BBC News; Associated Press; Knight Ridder News; Mail & Guardian (South Africa);; Iraqi TV;; El Paso Times;;

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