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.
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
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
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 www.btlonline.org 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, www.btlonline.org, 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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