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American treatment of prisoners assailed
Conduct weakens rights around world, group says

San Francisco Chronicle | May 26, 2005
By Marc Sandalow

Washington -- Amnesty International said Wednesday that the United States' treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib had emboldened abusive regimes and weakened human rights around the world.

The group's annual report, "The State of the World's Human Rights,'' provides a harshly worded critique of U.S. conduct toward its prisoners alongside accounts of oppression in China and genocide in Sudan, saying the U. S. behavior "grants a license to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity.''

William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, called on foreign governments to consider prosecuting top-ranking officials --

including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales -- if the U.S. refused to conduct a more thorough and independent investigation.

"The apparent high-level architects of torture should think twice before planning their next vacation to places like Acapulco or the French Riviera because they may find themselves under arrest,'' Schulz said, citing the example of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in London in 1998 under international law for crimes committed an ocean away.

The White House dismissed the report as "ridiculous and unsupported by the facts.'' Many conservatives have been critical of Amnesty International in recent years for what they perceive as an anti-American and anti-Israeli bias. Nevertheless, many others around the globe are likely to use the condemnation by the London-based organization as a validation of criticism against the United States.

"When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a license to others to commit abuse,'' Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan wrote in the introduction to the 308-page report. "The U.S.A., as the unrivaled political, military and economic hyper-power, sets the tone for governmental behavior worldwide.''

The denunciation comes amid new allegations of prisoner mistreatment at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The allegations are contained in FBI interviews dating back to 2002, notes of which were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act and made available Wednesday on the group's Web site.

The interviews with detainees contain numerous accounts of beatings, humiliation and sexual assaults. One prisoner told of guards flushing the Quran in a toilet, a charge that mirrors an account several weeks ago in Newsweek, which prompted rioting in Afghanistan and was later retracted by the newsmagazine.

Another prisoner told of a fellow inmate who had been held down by four guards as a female guard removed her blouse, fondled his genitals and then wiped menstrual blood on his face and head.

Concern over such reports, which have circulated since the pictures of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib became public a year ago, prompted a bipartisan group of 22 activists and former government officials to call on Congress Wednesday to create a commission to investigate prisoner mistreatment similar to the Sept. 11 commission that examined intelligence failures in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The way we've treated prisoners in our custody is not only counter to our values -- it's a strategic and tactical blunder,'' said John Podesta, President Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, who was among those who signed the request.

At a news conference, supporters said a commission would help convince Americans and the world that the United States was taking the matter of prisoner abuse seriously, whether it ultimately identified systemic problems or corroborated previous Pentagon investigations.

The 22 signatories included former Republican House members Mickey Edwards and Bob Barr; Thomas Pickering, President George H.W. Bush's representative to the United Nations; and CBS newsman Walter Cronkite.

Pickering said that he had just returned from meetings in the Middle East and that stories and images of U.S. abuse of prisoners "tends to figure in almost every Arab leader's view of the U.S."

The White House offered no immediate response to the idea of a commission. Spokesman Ken Lisaius said that "people are being held accountable for their actions,'' noting the courts-martial trials conducted for the Abu Ghraib photos.

"We're taking a number of steps to make sure that sort of thing won't happen again,'' Lisaius said.

Asked about the Amnesty International report, Bush's press secretary Scott McClellan labeled it "ridiculous and unsupported by the facts'' and said the U.S. was "leading the way when it comes to protecting human rights and promoting human dignity.''

McClellan said the United States had liberated 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan and pointed to the administration's commitment to combat global AIDS as an example of the nation's compassion.

The Amnesty International report paints a devastating picture of oppression for millions of people in countries around the world.

It documents murder and rape on a massive scale in Sudan, citing the Sudanese government for adding to the suffering "by bombing villages, while the security forces routinely tortured those in their custody, often by heavy beatings with hoses, whips or boots and sometimes by ripping out nails or burning with cigarettes.

In China, the report says that tens of thousands of people were detained in violation of human rights and were at "high risk of torture or ill- treatment. Thousands of people were sentenced to death or executed.''

But the United States bears much of the group's attention, as the report asserts the so-called war on terror appeared more effective in eroding the international framework of human rights principles than in countering the threat of international terrorism.

The U.S. section cites reports of abuses at the U.S. prisoner camps in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001. The report says that thousands of detainees have been denied access to their lawyers and families. Hundreds in Guantanamo Bay have yet to be charged or provided access to courts, despite a Supreme Court ruling that grants detainees legal standing in U.S. federal court.

"Such serious abuses carried out by a country as powerful as the U.S.A. created a dangerous climate,'' the report says. "The U.S. administration's unilateralism and selectivity sent a permissive signal to abusive governments around the world. There is strong evidence that the global security agenda pursued since Sept. 11 ... has encouraged and fueled abuses by governments and others in all regions of the world.''

Asked whether it was fair to compare the U.S. violations to the atrocities in Sudan and other places, Schulz said the organization does not rank or compare atrocities.

"We here in the United States have a special responsibility," he said, "both because we're Americans and because of the role that the United States plays in the world, to make sure that our human rights record is as clean, as exemplary as possible.''

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