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White House and senators agree on "compromise" for...
Making torture legal

By Nicole Colson | September 29, 2006 | Page 16

THE BUSH White House and a group Senate Republicans both declared victory last week after reaching a deal on legislation regarding the treatment of detainees in the U.S. "war on terror."

But instead of a "compromise" to protect detainees' rights--as Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Warner claimed they wanted--the new proposal will do more to legalize the torture of prisoners and prevent them from ever receiving a fair trial.

The "compromise" bill, which is expected to win congressional approval, gives the Bush administration a lot of what it demanded.

Faced with a U.S. Supreme Court decision challenging its detainee system at Guantánamo Bay, the White House had been pushing Congress to rewrite portions of the 1996 War Crimes Act to strip prisoners of protection under the Geneva Conventions, which outlaws "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment."

Bush repeatedly claimed that complying with the Geneva Conventions was a "threat to the nation"--supposedly putting the U.S. at risk of another terrorist attack if the CIA had to suspend its interrogation of detainees. The CIA is known to use so-called "alternative interrogation procedures" like waterboarding (mock drowning) and extreme psychological abuse, considered illegal under international law.

Under the new deal, while language about the Geneva Conventions is left in the law, Bush himself will get to issue an executive order defining the "meaning and application" of the Geneva Conventions, and specifying which interrogation techniques would be prohibited.

In other words, the Bush administration will still be allowed to rewrite the law to suit its own definition of what constitutes an "outrage on personal dignity"--clearing the way for the continuation of the CIA's interrogation program.

Even as the compromise was being brokered, new revelations showed the scope of U.S. detentions since the beginning of the "war on terror."

According to a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, since September 11, the U.S. has created a global network of prisons in which an estimated 14,000 detainees--the majority of them in Iraq--remain incarcerated without charge. Tens of thousands more--more than 18,000 in Iraq just since June 2004--have been detained for weeks, months or even years by the U.S. before finally being released.

"Many say they were caught up in U.S. military sweeps, often interrogated around the clock, then released months or years later without apology, compensation or any word on why they were taken," according to the Post-Intelligencer. "Seventy to 90 percent of the Iraq detentions in 2003 were 'mistakes,' U.S. officers once told the international Red Cross."

According to the report, the number of detainees in U.S. custody has actually increased since the publication of photos in 2004 showing U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib prison abusing detainees.

When U.S. forces gave control of Abu Ghraib prison to Iraqi forces earlier this year, it was empty--but that's only because 3,000 prisoners held at the facility were moved to Camp Cropper, where the U.S. is still in charge.

In all, there have been approximately 800 military investigations into the abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of May, just 89 service members had been convicted of crimes relating to detainee abuse at courts-martial.

As the Post-Intelligencer commented, "In only 14 of 34 cases has anyone been punished for the confirmed or suspected killings of detainees, the New York-based Human Rights First reports. The stiffest sentence in a torture-related death has been five months in jail."

The horrible reality of the U.S. torture system is clear from the case of Maher Arar.

On September 26, 2002, Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria, was on his way home to British Columbia following a vacation in Tunisia when he was detained while changing planes at Kennedy International Airport in New York City. He had apparently been wrongly identified by Canadian authorities as an "Islamic extremist" with suspected links to al-Qaeda.

Arar was interrogated for 13 days before being hooded, shackled and transported--"rendered," to use the CIA's term--overseas, first to Jordan and then Syria. There, Arar was beaten--often, he says, with shredded electrical cables until he was disoriented--and held in a dank underground cell about the size of a coffin.

After more than 10 months of this torture and abuse, Arar was finally released after intervention by the Canadian government. No charges were ever filed against him.

Last week, a Canadian commission exonerated Arar, saying that there was no evidence he ever had any connection to terrorists or posed a security threat. Canadian officials criticized the U.S. government for acting in a "less than forthcoming manner."

Based on the report, that's a vast understatement. On October 4, 2002, before Arar had been taken out of the U.S., Canadian counterterrorism officials sent a fax to the FBI saying that they "had yet to complete either a detailed investigation of Mr. Arar or a link analysis on him," and that "while he has had contact with many individuals of interest to this project we are unable to indicate links to al-Qaeda."

The next day, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police official spoke by phone with an unidentified F.B.I. official. "During this conversation, the FBI official said that the Americans feared they did not have sufficient information to support charges against Mr. Arar," said the report.

The Canadian officer agreed, saying that there was also "insufficient evidence to charge Mr. Arar in Canada." Canadian officials told the U.S. that Arar would be kept under surveillance once back in Canada.

Instead of allowing him to return home, however, the U.S. seems to have struck a deal with Syria--known for its use of torture--to take Arar for "questioning," without informing Canadian officials. "The American authorities appear to have intentionally kept Canadian officials in the dark about their plans to remove Mr. Arar to Syria," according to the report.

For several weeks after he was rendered, Canadian officials couldn't locate Arar, because Syrian officials at first denied he was in the country--in order, according to the report, to hide the fact that he was being tortured.

"I have waited a long time to have my name cleared," Arar said in a statement last week. "I was tortured and lost a year of my life. I will never be the same. The United States must take responsibility for what it did to me and must stop destroying more innocent lives with its unlawful actions."

But if the Bush administration and Congress get their way, people like Maher Arar will face even more obstacles in trying to prove their innocence.

The new "compromise" legislation will allow statements obtained through coercion and hearsay evidence against detainees, while limiting their right to appeals. In addition, the bill will retroactively exempt Bush administration officials, CIA agents and other military personnel from prosecution under the War Crimes Act for many of the acts of mental and physical abuse that detainees say they were subjected to while in U.S. custody.

Plus, detainees being held by the U.S. in other countries would be legally stripped of their right to habeas corpus. That would essentially condemn detainees to indefinite confinement, with no right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.

As Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told Inter Press Service, wiping out habeus corpus "is the equivalent of the authorization of executive detention--one of the hallmarks of a police state."

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