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Commentary: A Question of Torture

By Walter Simpson

Buffalo, NY – It's been a year since the first photos of prisoner abuse at the U.S.-run Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib became public. Since then the Bush Administration has placed the blame on a few bad apples and prosecuted a handful of frontline soldiers.

Calling Abu Ghraib just the tip of the iceberg, Human Rights Watch has documented widespread mistreatment and abuse of prisoners throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, at Guantanamo Bay, and in secret locations around the world. The internationally respected human rights group is calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the culpability of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, ex-CIA director George Tenet and other high ranking officials for ordering or condoning torture.

What kind of torture are we talking about? Is it just stripping people and having them pose in lewd positions while making fun of them?

Well, here are some of the other methods used by U.S. interrogators and paid for by your tax dollars, as documented by various sources: prolonged hooding, sleep deprivation, non-stop bombardment by loud noise, shackling in painful stress positions, intimidation by guard dogs, setting fire to detainees, searing their skin with electrodes, and beatings - sometimes severe enough to result in death. An executive order issued by President Bush in February of 2002 approved "waterboarding," a method of torture in which a person is tightly bound to a piece of wood and submerged in water until nearly drowned.

Federal judge Alvin Hellerstein recently ordered the release of additional photos from Abu Ghraib as a result of a law suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss said his stomach gaveout when he saw these photos which are said to show American soldiers ruthlessly beating prisoners, apparently raping a female prisoner, and allowing Iraqi guards to rape young boys.

Consider for a moment that none of these victims of torture or abuse, call it what you will, have been convicted of anything. Some may be al Qaeda killers and some may be innocent men, women and children who have no idea why they are imprisoned. Habeas corpus has been suspended. They have not been charged with a crime. They have no lawyer or legal recourse. By Bush Administration design, they exist outside the U.S. judicial system and have been denied the protections of international law.

Under the CIA rendition program an estimated 100 to 150 suspected terrorists have been sent by the United States to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan for interrogation and imprisonment. All these countries have terrible human rights records. They practice torture. In Uzbekistan human rights groups have documented the use of beatings, asphyxiation with gas masks, boiling body parts, electroshock to the genitals, and pulling fingernails off with pliers. While the Bush Administration claims it seeks assurances that rendered prisoners will not be tortured, human rights advocates argue these assurances are worthless and that the U.S. government knows that.

The American public has been strangely silent about torture. And Congress has done little besides hand wringing -- despite the fact that our use of torture is increasing anti-American hatred around the world and making it more likely that Americans will be tortured when captured.

Meanwhile the Bush Administration has been actively rewarding its torture advocates. Alberto Gonzales, who as White House Counsel advised the president that the war on terror rendered the Geneva Convention's prohibitions on torture quaint and obsolete, is now U.S. Attorney General - the chief law officer in the land. And the Administration's new Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, was U.S. ambassador to Honduras for four years during the early 1980s when many thousands were killed and terrorized by U.S.-backed Contra mercenaries and paramilitary death squads.

Torture is not only abhorrent but it is wrong, ethically as well as strategically. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard and demand that the U.S. obey all international prohibitions against torture.

An independent counsel should be established to investigate all charges of torture. Any American soldier, civilian, or official found responsible for torture should be prosecuted to the full extent of domestic and international law. Guantanamo Bay prison should be closed. The illegal practice of disappearing people into ghost prisons must stop. All prisoners in U.S. military or CIA-run prisons should have charges brought against them and have a fair trial or be released. And all U.S. prisoners held in foreign jails should be returned to U.S. custody and be subject to U.S. law - its penalties and its protections.

Fighting terrorism does not give us the right to become terrorists.

"Reality Check" with Commentator Walter Simpson is a monthly feature of WBFO News.