U.S. a Failure at Protecting Human Rights

Amnesty International challenged the United States on Wednesday to fully investigate the abusive treatment of detainees under its supervision at Guantanamo and in the Middle East, and said foreign governments should conduct their own investigations if the Bush administration and Congress fail to act.

“The refusal of the U.S. government to conduct a truly independent investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and other detention centers is tantamount to a whitewash, if not a cover-up, of these disgraceful crimes,” said William Schulz, top executive of Amnesty International USA. Unless top-ranking officials are held to account, he said, abusive techniques “will multiply and spread.”

Separately, a bipartisan interest group affiliated with the Constitution Project called for the administration and Congress to appoint an independent commission to investigate abuses of terrorist suspects.

The twin calls ramped up pressure on the Bush administration to expand investigations of alleged abuse beyond the military probes and judicial actions that have already occurred. For months, Sen. Patrick Leahy, top Democratic on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called for an independent investigation of detainee abuse.

At the White House, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan called the Amnesty International critique “ridiculous and unsupported by the facts. The United States is leading the way when it comes to protecting human rights and promoting human dignity.

“We have liberated 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “We have worked to advance freedom and democracy in the world so that people are governed under a rule of law. . . . We hold people accountable when there is abuse. We take steps to prevent it from happening again. And we do so in a very public way for the world to see.”

Amnesty International’s report came at a time when the United States’ handling of detainees has come under fresh scrutiny. Last week the New York Times reported on the brutal interrogation and death in 2002 of an Afghan taxi driver who fell by happenstance into U.S. custody at Bagram Air Base. Wednesday, newly released FBI documents revealed allegations of abuse by detainees in Guantanamo, including several claiming abuse by prison guards of the Quran.

The human rights group made the United States’ handling of detainees its No. 1 target in its annual assessment of human rights around the world.

Schulz said the United States merited special attention.

“What the United States does in its own human rights record, particularly if it itself is guilty of one of the most heinous human rights crimes in the world, the crime of torture, that has a resounding effect throughout the world,” he said.

The report said Amnesty International had documented cases of torture and abusive treatment such as hooding, beatings, prolonged painful restraint and use of dogs at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. In addition, it said the United States is sending prisoners to third-party countries that practice torture.

Schulz acknowledged that this is not the first time in national history that troops and agents have been accused of committing torture and acts of abuse.

What’s new, he said, are the 2002 policy memo by Alberto Gonzales, then White House legal counsel and now attorney general, that appeared to shrink the scope of torture prohibitions under the Geneva Conventions, and a subsequent memo approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that legitimized techniques such as prolonged isolation, stress positions, stripping and use of dogs at Guantanamo Bay.

Amnesty International called on President Bush and Congress to order an independent commission to investigate abuse allegations, and asked Gonzales to appoint an independent special counsel to conduct a parallel criminal investigation.

Among those the group said might be considered “high-level torture architects” are Rumsfeld, Gonzales, former CIA Director George Tenet and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

The military has defended its multiple investigations of abuse allegations, and its judicial system has handed down several prison terms, but Amnesty International said the military brass has gotten off easy.

“It is inexcusable that the few military higher-ups who have been held accountable have received the equivalent of a parental time-out for their wrongdoing,” said Schulz, who also suggested that Bush might also merit attention for signing a 2002 memo declaring that Geneva Conventions protection did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees.

Additionally, Schulz urged foreign governments to consider investigations of U.S. abuse, noting that the 1998 arrest, on human rights violations, of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet in London might serve as an example of what could happen someday to a U.S. official linked to torture.

Wednesday’s simultaneous call for an independent investigation by the Constitution Project was the work of a small interest group that claims a bipartisan constituency. Among proponents were John Podesta, former chief of staff under President Clinton, former Republican Rep. Robert Barr of Georgia and David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.