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Abuses In US Run Prisons Are Widespread & Systemic

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release May 17, 2004

Human Rights Abuses in U.S.-Run Iraq and Afghan Prisons are Widespread and Systemic

Interview with Carroll Bogert, associate director, Human Rights Watch, conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

As combat between U.S. troops and insurgents continue throughout Iraq, world attention has been focused on photos of American prison guards abusing and sexually humiliating their Iraqi prisoners. The international scandal erupted after investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote a lengthy article about the torture allegations in the New Yorker magazine, and a U.S. soldier's decision to hand over digital images capturing the mistreatment to Army investigators. These pictures were later broadcast on CBS TV's 60 Minutes II program on April 28. Since then, Congress has undertaken an investigation into who was responsible for the abuse and why information about the alleged torture was not investigated or acted upon sooner.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has issued a report which states that documentation on the abuse of prisoners was collected by inspectors who visited U.S.-run prisons in Iraq as early as May 2003. The Red Cross maintains that it had regularly informed American prison administrators of the conditions found during site visits, with complaints being directly reported to top Bush administration officials in mid-January of this year. The Red Cross report also quotes coalition intelligence officers as estimating that 70 to 90 percent of Iraqi detainees were arrested by mistake.

Thus far, the Pentagon has filed criminal charges against seven U.S. soldiers for their alleged mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. While many Democrats have called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush continues to publicly support the secretary. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Carroll Bogert, associate director with Human Rights Watch, who examines the charges against U.S. soldiers, accountability up the chain of command and American adherence to the Geneva Conventions.

Carroll Bogert: Well, I think it's important to understand that this is not the action of few rogue soldiers. That this isn't just a couple of bad apples in a U.S. military that is otherwise squeaky clean. That's not to say that every serviceman or woman in Iraq is guilty of this kind of thing, not at all. But it was a much more systemic problem than I think the leadership at the Department of Defense and in the White House would have us believe.

The first really credible reports of torture surfaced in a Washington Post piece on, I think it was Christmas day, actually of 2002 -- about also the rendition of suspects, the handing over of suspects to countries that torture -- as well as torture at the hands of U.S. officials themselves. Now, both of those things are illegal under the international convention against torture. So they were both of great concern to human rights groups.

We wrote to the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in January of 2003 urging that the administration should publicly state that torture would not be tolerated. So the fact that this was happening was known by the pieces in the Washington Post and was raised as a problem by human rights groups almost a year and half ago.

So we know that the U.S. military did begin a criminal investigation into the death of an Afghan man who was in U.S. custody in December 2003 -- and that there were other credible reports of torture in Afghanistan. Again, this is not a problem that is limited to Iraq -- what we were able to document in Afghanistan is that we have a major problem at the Bagram base there, as well as other parts of what is appropriately being described as the American Gulag -- a series of detention facilities, who knows where? Where the Bush administration has attempted to argue that essentially international law does not apply and the Geneva Conventions aren't in effect, these aren't prisoners of war and stress and duress techniques that were officially and formally adopted in the Department of Defense have been in play for quite some time.

So, it's not a new problem and it's not something that the leadership in the Department of Defense or the U.S. government should have learned about just since the publication of these photographs.

Between The Lines: It seems that the Bush administration has put forward this notion of exceptionalism where the United States doesn't have to comply with international laws that have been on the books for decades. We also have the case where the Bush administration opted out of the International Criminal Court and made side deals with nations all over the world to make sure that U.S. personnel were exempt from any kind of prosecution of war crimes. Tell us a little bit about what the Bush administration has done in the instances of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and how that erodes international law.

Carroll Bogert: The refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions to prisoners whom we picked up in conflict and the refusal, as you mentioned, to -- not just to ratify the International Criminal Court treaty, but actually to un-sign a treaty that Clinton had signed -- which was an act unprecedented in U.S. diplomatic history. Combined with I think what goes beyond human rights issues into the field of the environment -the Kyoto (global warming) treaty, biological weapons treaties and other international initiatives, as well as just the United Nations itself, in fact the very idea that there should be multi-lateral diplomacy -- has definitely been under threat and under siege from the Bush administration. Taken together it's a powerful signal of American arrogance and American exceptionalism.

I certainly would fault the Bush administration for that policy, but I have to say that the current scandal over the abuses at Abu Ghraib really challenge many Americans' sense of who they are and what Americans are capable of. And I think that many people have made the assumption that we Americans would never do something like that, that's not the kind of people we are. I think these photos have been very, very shocking to people on a kind of personal level.

Between The Lines: Well, just a final question Carroll, that has to do with what in the minds of the folks over at Human Rights Watch should be done in terms of holding accountable the soldiers who actually committed the abuse, their superiors and even the political leadership in Washington including the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the president himself?

Carroll Bogert: I think it's very important that people be held to account. We have the first court martial that's been announced, I believe for May 19th. And it's a Special Court Martial with the relatively weak punishments, even if the defendant is found guilty.

Secretary Rumsfeld said before when he testified in Congress that he forgot the chain of command documents that would have shown how this information should have gone up the chain. But these are very important facts that need to be unearthed. And the criminal investigations need really to be followed very, very carefully -- because we're talking now about a welter of prison guards, private contractors and other individuals who were immediately involved and then their superiors up the chain. And I think it would behoove Secretary Rumsfeld to produce that chain of command document and we better start looking at it pretty closely.

Call Human Rights Watch at (212) 290-4700 or visit their website at

Related links:

"America's Military Coup"
"Former Iraq Minister: U.S. Forces Covered Up Abuses"
"U.S. Military Confirms Existence Of Horrific Pictures and Video"
"Chain Of Command: How the Defense Dept. Mishandled The Abu Ghraib Disaster"
"Was Army Torture Report Classified to Protect the Guilty?"
"Human Rights Group Charges U.S. is Abusing Prisoners in Afghanistan,"

Between The Lines Q&A, March 26, 2004
And more ...


Scott Harris, is the executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines ( for the week ending May 21, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.

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