Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release March 22, 2004

Human Rights Group Charges U.S.
is Abusing Prisoners in Afghanistan

Interview with John Sifton,
researcher with the Asia Division
of Human Rights Watch,
conducted Scott Harris

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Upon their release from detention on the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, several British citizens captured in Afghanistan by American forces have alleged that they were subjected to abuse and psychological torture. According to accounts published in the British press, prisoners at Guantanamo's Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta -- held without due process -- were regularly beaten, lived in cages exposed to the elements and were fed a diet of foul water and food.

While many of these allegations have been covered in the U.S. media, receiving less attention are the conditions under which an undetermined number of prisoners are now being held by American forces in Afghanistan. An investigation conducted by Human Rights Watch concluded that the U.S.-administered system of arrest and detention in Afghanistan exists outside of the rule of law. In a recently published report, Human Rights Watch charges that compelling evidence suggests that U.S. personnel have committed acts against detainees amounting to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Three detainees are known to have died while in American custody, two of which were classified as homicides by U.S. pathologists.

In addition, Human Rights Watch says that the U.S. military has arbitrarily detained civilians and used excessive force during arrests of non-combatants. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with John Sifton, a researcher with the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, who summarizes his group's investigation into the situation in Afghanistan.

John Sifton: Well, this report is not about the whole war in Afghanistan, but just about the way in which the U.S. forces arrest and detain people. What we found in our investigations was that the United States regularly arrests people arbitrarily and outside of a recognizable system. Many of the detainees turn out to be civilians with no nexus, no connection to hostility. Some are released, but sometimes only after weeks or even months and sometimes extended even to years of detention. Many of the detainees who've been released have alleged that they have been mistreated by U.S. forces. They've been subjected to beatings; some have been beaten severely by kicking, hitting with fists. Others described interrogations in which they were deprived of sleep for long periods of time, kept awake for weeks at a time, stripped down to their underwear, doused with water. Very serious allegations. Not universal. Some detainees do not allege these things, but they have alleged a pattern of abuses at the hands of the U.S. troops.

Lastly, there's the issue of how the U.S. arrests people. We're very concerned that, in many instances where the U.S. conducts operations off the battlefield, not in combat, they often use excessive force. They use gunfire, excessive suppressing fire -- "spray and pray" type of gunfire -- the type of thing that would be appropriate in a combat situation. War is ugly, of course, but in a residential, non-combat situation, our argument is that these types of tactics where the U.S. comes storming through the door, guns blazing, is not appropriate for the areas in Afghanistan which are outside of the combat zone. And there are areas in Afghanistan which are outside the combat zone.

Between The Lines: John Sifton, one of the things cited in the report were the deaths of three prisoners under U.S. custody. Tell us what you found there.

John Sifton: It's very difficult to get information. But we know that three detainees have died in U.S. custody. Death in custody itself shouldn't necessarily be a suspicious thing, after all people die in our prison system everyday of old age, of internal violence, of all kinds of reasons. But these are particularly disturbing because the men were young men; they died in such a way that a military pathologist labeled their deaths under homicide as a choice of death -- accidental, natural, or homicide. Homicide was chosen in two of the detainees' deaths, marked on their autopsy as the cause of death. The third detainee died in 2003. The U.S. announced the death but provided no other information.

This raises a number of concerns. We have allegations about beatings, severe sometimes. We have the allegations of prolonged shackling and hooding. We have concerns that these beatings can lead not just to short-term pain and suffering, but can perhaps -- for vulnerable detainees-- even lead to death. So, of course, there's a concern that if there are deaths that they would be linked to these mistreatments.

Between The Lines
: What specific planks of international law, or of the Geneva conventions is the U.S. ignoring here in its treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

John Sifton: The Taliban fell as the de facto government of Afghanistan. We now have what in legal terms is called a non-international armed conflict. A lot of people would maintain that somehow changes the overall situation. It doesn't really. The United States is obligated to maintain protections under the Geneva Conventions for anybody it captures on a battlefield, whether it's an international armed conflict or non-international. There are minimum standards that are equivalent in both cases. Our argument is that these standards are not being met. The United States' position is that somehow because it's a war, they're entitled to do things that they perhaps wouldn't be entitled to do under other circumstances. Like for instance, use excessive force during arrests. You know, they say, "We're not police, we're fighting a war here." That argument disregards the fact that torture is impermissible in all cases. Even in war, soldiers are prohibited from using torture and mistreatment to interrogate people They're prohibited from holding civilians indefinitely without some kind of legal tribunal. Those are protections, not for peacetime, but for wartime. They're applicable to wartime situations, to combat situations.

Between The Lines
: What are your recommendations to the Bush administration, to Congress, and to U.S. citizens at large in reacting to this set of very disturbing reports about brutality at the hands of the U.S. in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

John Sifton:
Well, for the United States government, the issue is very clear. They just need to work at creating first tribunals, legal systems for the detainees. This is something that we did even in Germany for German detainees, for Japanese detainees in World War II. Something we did in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War. In Afghanistan, none of that is happening.

U.S. citizens, for their part, can write to their senator because they're the ones who are more likely to be on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or Armed Services Committee. To say to them, I don't want the United States to be implicated in these abuses. To write to their senators and say, "I don't want this to happen. Why don't you hold hearings and bring the secretary of defense before your committee and ask them, "Why is this going on?"

To get more information on the Human Rights Watch report titled, "Enduring Freedom: Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan," call the group at (212) 290-4700 or visit their website at

Related links, MP3 files on our website at for the week ending 3/26/04:

-"My Hell in Camp X-Ray"
-"The Torture Files"
-"As U.S. Detains Iraqis, Families Plead for News"

Visit our Between The Lines Newswire regularly at to read other in-depth news stories that are under-reported or ignored in the corporate media.

Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on over 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines,, for the week ending March 26, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.

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