WASHINGTON, May (IPS) – If the administration of President George W. Bush fails to conduct a truly independent investigation of U.S. abuses against detainees in Iraq and elsewhere, foreign governments should investigate and prosecute those senior officials who bear responsibility for them, the head of the U.S. chapter of Amnesty International said here Wednesday.
Speaking at the release of Amnesty’s annual report, William Schulz charged that Washington has become ‘a leading purveyor and practitioner’ of torture and ill-treatment and that senior officials should face prosecution by other governments for violations of the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
Among those officials, Schulz named Bush, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Douglas Feith, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet, and senior officers at U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib, Iraq.
‘If the U.S. government continues to shirk its responsibility, Amnesty International calls on foreign governments to uphold their obligations under international law by investigating all senior U.S. officials involved in the torture scandal,’ said Schulz, who added that violations of the torture convention, which has been ratified by the United States and some 138 other countries, can be prosecuted in any jurisdiction.
‘If those investigations support prosecution, the governments should arrest any official who enters their territory and begin legal proceedings against them,’ he added. ‘The apparent high-level architects of torture should think twice before planning their next vacation to places like Acapulco or the French Riviera because they may find themselves under arrest as (former Chilean dictator) Augusto Pinochet famously did in London in 1998.’
Schulz also called on state bar associations to investigate administration lawyers who helped prepare legal opinions that sought to justify or defend the use of abusive interrogation methods for breach of their professional and ethical responsibilities.
He cited, in particular, Vice President Dick Cheney’s general counsel, David Addington; Pentagon General Counsel William Haynes; and top officials in the Justice Department’s Office of General Counsel, one of whom, Jay Bybee, has since been confirmed as a federal appeals court judge.
‘A wall of secrecy is protecting those who masterminded and developed the U.S. torture policy,’ Schulz said. ‘Unless those who drew the blueprint for torture, approved it, and ordered it implemented are held accountable, the United States’ once-proud reputation as an exemplar of human rights will remain in tatters.’
Schulz’s appeal for foreign governments to take the initiative coincided with the launch of a bipartisan drive endorsed by some 350 attorneys and legal scholars urging the administration to establish an independent commission to address the allegations of abuse and torture, including an assessment of the responsibility of senior administration officials and military officers.
‘By establishing an independent bipartisan commission to fully investigate the issue of abuse of terrorist suspects,’ said John Whitehead, who served as deputy secretary of state in the Ronald Reagan administration, ‘Congress and the president have a unique opportunity to send a message to the rest of the world that the United States is committed to respecting the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, whether they are U.S. citizens or prisoners of war.â€
Whitehead said a high-level, independent investigation was necessary because the Pentagon’s ongoing or recently completed investigations were too narrowly focused and not designed to produce recommendations to prevent future abuses.
Among the signers of the initiative, which was sponsored by the bipartisan Constitution Project at Georgetown University, were prominent right-wing activists including David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, two former Republican congressmen, as well as former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering, and former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director William Sessions. The National Institute of Military Justice (NIMJ) also endorsed the statement, as did more than a dozen military law specialists and retired high-ranking military officers.
Since the abuses first came to light with the publication of photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib 13 months ago, the Pentagon has carried out dozens of reviews, courts-martial, and disciplinary proceedings. But virtually all of them have dealt only with the responsibility of the soldiers who carried out the abuses or their immediate superiors.
The failure to address the responsibility of officials and officers at the top of the command chain, particularly in light of the disclosure of memos which appeared to authorise at least some of the tactics carried out against detainees, has provoked repeated demands by human rights groups to appoint an independent commission to conduct a thorough examination. Last summer, the 400,000-lawyer American Bar Association joined Amnesty, Human rights Watch, Human Rights First, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in those demands.
But the Bush administration has rejected them, arguing that the Pentagon’s own efforts to investigate and prosecute abuses were adequate. The Republican leadership in Congress has also paralysed efforts by Democratic and some Republican lawmakers to create a commission.
The refusal to investigate translates into effective ‘tolerance’ for torture and mistreatment, Schulz said, resulting not only in the spread of such practices but also in the destruction of U.S. credibility when it assails other countries, such as Syria or Egypt, for human rights violations.
‘It is the height of hypocrisy for the U.S. government itself to use the very torture techniques that it routinely condemns in other countries,’ he said. ‘When the U.S. government then calls upon foreign leaders to bring to justice those who commit or authorise human rights violations in their own countries, why should those foreign leaders listen?’
As he spoke, the ACLU released new documents it had obtained from the FBI under court order that disclosed that prisoners held at Guantanamo complained that guards there had repeatedly mistreated the Koran. In one 2002 summary, an FBI interrogator noted a prisoner’s allegation that guards had flushed a Koran down a toilet.
The disclosure comes on the heels of controversy over a Newsweek report saying that government investigators had corroborated an almost identical incident. Newsweek ultimately retracted its story because a confidential government source could not be confirmed.
Other documents released Wednesday by the ACLU provided accounts of beatings, planned suicide attempts, hunger strikes to protest mistreatment and sexual assaults, including an incident in which a female guard fondled a detainee’s genitals while he was held down by male guards.
‘The United States government continues to turn a blind eye to mounting evidence of widespread abuse of detainees held in its custody,’ said ACLU director Anthony Romero. ‘If we are to truly repair America’s standing in the world, the Bush administration must hold accountable high-ranking officials who allow the continuing abuse and torture of detainees.’