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Mistreatment of Detainees in US Custody

President George W. Bush
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

Nearly a year ago, on June 26, 2003, you reaffirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to respect international prohibitions not only of torture but also of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. In the past several weeks, it has become obvious that this policy statement was not implemented. U.S. forces have systematically mistreated detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo, and elsewhere. These violations of international law governing the treatment of detainees threaten to erode human rights norms that protect everyone taken into custody, including Americans. They have also done enormous damage to America’s reputation, harmed U.S. efforts to build global support for countering terrorism, and been an apparent boon to terrorist recruiters. Your personal intervention is needed to end these illegal practices.

The sexual humiliation and abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison is only one small part of the problem. That abuse is reprehensible, and we welcome efforts to hold the perpetrators at all levels accountable. But what is most disturbing is that the abuse clearly stems from policy decisions that your administration made to approve a range of coercive interrogation techniques that violate international law. It is these policy decisions that you must now reverse.

Your administration has approved a matrix of coercive interrogation techniques that, at a minimum, violate the prohibition of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. These techniques include stripping detainees naked during interrogation, subjecting them to extremes of heat, cold, noise, and light, hooding them, depriving them of sleep, and keeping them in painful positions. In more extreme cases, U.S. personnel have used torture, such as submerging the victim in water until he believes he will drown, or leading a detainee to believe he will be summarily executed.

These interrogation practices cannot plausibly be attributed to a handful of low-level soldiers or intelligence officials. Credible accounts suggest they reflect official policy authorized at the highest levels of the Defense and Justice Departments and the Central Intelligence Agency. These practices violate international law. They flout your June 26 policy statement. And, by legitimizing the use of pain and humiliation to facilitate interrogation, they create an environment in which even more serious abuses appear legitimate.

We welcome Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez’s announcement last week that in Iraq he would no longer authorize certain coercive interrogation techniques, such as sleep and sensory deprivation and stressful body positioning. However, his statement was insufficient.

First, he did not acknowledge that these techniques are illegal, in violation of fundamental human rights. Rather, he claimed that they are unnecessary because no one had sought authorization to use them. That, of course, leaves open the possibility of their being reinstated should they prove “necessary.” It also fails to repair the damage done to the international prohibition of torture and other mistreatment, since it leaves the impression that your administration views these coercive interrogation techniques as legal. Future American detainees, among others, will suffer the consequences of that impression.

Second, Gen. Sanchez’s statement is limited geographically to detainees under his authority in Iraq. However, Human Rights Watch has collected evidence that U.S. forces have employed similar techniques against detainees at military bases at Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan and Guantánamo in Cuba. A prohibition of coercive interrogation practices should extend to all U.S. detention facilities, and apply to all U.S. forces, whether military, intelligence, law enforcement, or private contractors in their employ.

Torture and other mistreatment of detainees in time of armed conflict or occupation are prohibited under the Third Geneva Convention with respect to prisoners of war and under the Fourth Geneva Convention with respect to other protected persons. We are aware of the administration’s view that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to terrorist suspects, and that the Taliban detainees are not prisoners of war. Even if those contentions were true, war-time detainees would still be protected from torture and other mistreatment by customary international humanitarian law that the United States has long considered binding. In addition, coercive interrogation is prohibited in all circumstances by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States has ratified. The U.S. government has acknowledged that these prohibitions are absolute and unconditional. They are so fundamental that their violation has been deemed a crime prosecutable in any competent court worldwide.

There should be no question that the coercive practices authorized to date are illegal under these standards. As the U.S. government stated upon ratification and as your administration reiterated last June 26, the Convention against Torture prohibits at least the same treatment of detainees as the U.S. Constitution. There is no question that the interrogation techniques described above, if used by law enforcement officials in the United States, would be found unconstitutional. By the same token, they are illegal if used abroad. As your administration recognized a year ago, the standard is the same.

We therefore urge you to announce that, from now on, no U.S. government officials or anyone under their direction will employ coercive interrogation techniques ­ without exception. In light of the failure to date to apply your June 26 policy statement, we urge you to provide a detailed itemization of the techniques that are prohibited. You should make clear that your administration unequivocally proscribes the deliberate use of pain, suffering, or humiliation as part of any interrogation process, regardless of the locale, regardless of the legal status of the detainee, regardless of the secrecy or openness of the detention.

This matter is too important to be left to subordinates. Action by you is needed to demonstrate your personal commitment to the prohibition of torture and mistreatment contained in domestic and international law.


Executive Director
Human Rights Watch


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