May 21, 2006

UN to US: Close Guantánamo

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For the second time this year, a United Nations body has chastised the United States for its torture of prisoners and told it to close its prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In February, the UN Human Rights Commission criticized the US government for force-feeding hunger strikers there – calling it torture – and urged the United States to “close the Guantánamo Bay detention facilities without further delay.”

Yesterday, the Committee Against Torture said that the United States “should cease to detain any person at Guantánamo Bay and close this detention facility, permit access by the detainees to judicial process or release them as soon as possible, ensuring that they are not returned to any State where they could face a real risk of being tortured.”

When the United States ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it became part of US law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. All parties to the Convention are required to file reports documenting their progress in implementing their obligations under the Convention.

The Committee Against Torture is charged with evaluating those compliance reports. In an 11-page document released yesterday, the committee evaluated the United States’ report, which was filed three and one-half years late.

In its evaluation, the committee stated it was “concerned by reliable reports of acts of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment committed by certain members of the [United States’] military or civilian personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq,” some of which resulted in death.

The committee called on the US to rescind any interrogation technique – including sexual humiliation, water boarding, short shackling and using dogs to induce fear – that constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Detaining persons indefinitely without charge, as the United States has done with most of the 500 or so prisoners at Guantánamo, constitutes a per se violation of the Convention, the committee noted.

The committee was particularly concerned that the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which Congress passed last December, aims to strip US federal courts of jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions filed by or on behalf of Guantánamo detainees. This issue is pending in the Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which will be decided by the end of June.

Other concerns included forced disappearances, which are considered to be torture; the practice of rendition of prisoners to countries where they face a real risk of torture; and the establishment of secret detention facilities which are not accessible to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The United States “should promptly, thoroughly, and impartially investigate any responsibility of senior military and civilian officials authorizing, acquiescing or consenting, in any way, to acts of torture committed by their subordinates,” the committee declared.

It noted with disapproval that there have been no prosecutions initiated under the federal torture statute.

Last week, a district court judge in Virginia dismissed an “extraordinary rendition” lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a German citizen against former CIA director George Tenet and 10 other CIA employees. Khaled el-Masri alleged that he was beaten and injected with drugs after being seized near the Macedonian border with Albania, then taken to Afghanistan and held for five months.

In dismissing the suit, Judge T.S. Ellis said Mr. el-Masri’s “private interests must give way to the national interest in preserving state secrets.”

On Thursday, three or four Guantánamo prisoners attempted suicide. Early reports indicated that when the guard force tried to intervene and save the life of one prisoner, other prisoners attempted to prevent them from rescuing the suicidal prisoner.

By the end of the day, the story provided by the US military had changed. In the later report, the military claimed that a group of prisoners had lured guards into the compound by staging a suicide attempt and then attacked the guards.