Monday, June 30, 2008

Report Documents First-hand, Verifiable Evidence of Ill-treatment and Torture of Detainees Under U.S. Custody

During the past several years, the U.S. government has consistently argued that it does not condone torture and that its treatment of detainees in overseas detention centers, though harsh, is not illegal. At the same time, many top administration officials sought to reexamine the United States' domestic and international legal obligations in order to find a way to justify the use of "harsh interrogation techniques," many of which amount to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, in order to obtain information that they suspected detainees of having.

For example, in August 2002, attorneys for the Justice Department drafted a memorandum in which they purported to “clarify” the definition of torture. In actuality, the authors of the memorandum, John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, completely redefined torture so that, in order for physical pain to constitute torture, it must “be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." Likewise, the infliction of mental pain, in order to amount to torture (as defined by Yoo and Bybee), must " result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years”.

Moreover, Yoo and Bybee wrote that even if interrogation methods do violate the law, they could be justified under certain circumstances, such as when necessity or self-defense require – a proposition that directly contradicts the absolute prohibition of torture under longstanding and universally-accepted human rights standards.

Their memo was later withdrawn by lawyers for the DOJ, but others similar in scope replaced it. Even as evidence continues to mount indicating that such memos formed the basis of unlawful interrogation practices, leading to the abuse and torture of detainees in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the administration stuck to its claim that detainees were being treated humanely and in accordance with international law.

The administration’s continued insistence that it does not torture has now suffered yet another blow from a recent report published by Physicians For Human Rights (PHR), which examined former detainees who had been held in U.S.-controlled prisons, and found concrete and irrefutable evidence of the physical and psychological fingerprints of torture.

In the report – Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by US Personnel and its Impact – PHR clinicians interviewed 11 former detainees and verified their stories in accordance with U.N. guidelines for assessing physical and psychological evidence of torture. In each case, available evidence corroborated the former detainees' claims. The former detainees were arrested in different locations in Iraq and Afghanistan and held in various prisons whose names are now synonymous with detainee abuse and torture: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, and other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the fact that former detainees often shared no common language, and were held at different prisons at different times, thus making corroboration among them highly unlikely, if not impossible, their stories shared significant similarities.

The former detainees reported brutal beatings during their arrest and transfer to detention facilities, as well as being severely deprived of basic necessities, lack of sanitation, and assaults upon their person and dignity during their imprisonment, including:

  • Being forced to live in urine-soaked detention rooms;
  • Being prevented access to clean drinking water, toilets, or clothing;
  • Subjected to forced isolation in small, dark rooms for extended periods of time; and
  • Non-stop, intense sensory bombardment consisting of bright lights and/or loud music for days at a time, resulting in severe sleep deprivation.

The medical evidence was also consistent with the former detainees’ claims of physical assault and torture, instances of which included:

  • Severe beatings;
  • Electric shocks; and
  • Sodomy with rifles and sticks.

PHR’s evaluation made clear that the former detainees are still suffering from the long-term effects of their ill-treatment. Many former detainees reported: significant persistent and chronic physical pain and functional impairment; severe and disabling depression; difficulty sleeping; hypervigilance; intense anxiety and panic attacks; and diminution of social and work life, resulting in serious difficulties in finding employment and in being able to support their families.

Broken Lives confirms claims of torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. overseas detention facilities using established and accepted investigative methods. The fact that each former detainee who participated in the study reported being subjected to similar methods of abuse strongly suggests that such abuse likely was, and perhaps still is, widespread and systemic.

The conclusions of Broken Lives impeach yet again the administration’s claims that the abuse of detainees in U.S. detention centers has been limited to a few isolated, independent instances caused by “a few bad apples on the night shift.

By Mustafa Unlu, Human Rights & Anti-Terrorism Legal Intern at Human Rights USA.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Supreme Court rules that Guantanamo detainees have right to habeas corpus

In a remarkable decision issued today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo Bay alien detainees have a right to challenge the lawfulness of their detentions in U.S. federal courts. The 5-4 decision was issued in the combined cases of Al Odah v. United States and Boumediene v. Bush.

In its decision, the Court ruled that Congress had not validly suspended habeas corpus. Under Article I, Section 9, Clause 2 of the Constitution, the writ of habeas corpus may only be suspended in times of rebellion or invasion -- neither of which have occurred.

Just as significantly, the Court also ruled that the alternative to habeas corpus that Congress set up in 2005 under the Detainee Treatment Act, which only permits detainees to challenge the lawfulness of their detentions under very restrictive and limited terms, is an inadequate and ineffective alternative to habeas. The DTA, according to the Court, did not provide sufficient legal protections to detainees who sought to challenge their detentions under the DTA scheme.

Detainees had challenged the sufficiency of the DTA process, claiming that, unlike the legal protections afforded under habeas review, the DTA did not grant detainees the right to counsel, the right to meaningfully challenge evidence presented against them, the right to present exculpatory evidence, or the right to secure their release if they were found to not be enemy combatants. The DTA would have also allowed the government to present evidence obtained through coercion or torture.

This means that detainees are not required to abide by the terms set out in the Detainee Treatment Act, but rather, may challenge their detentions in U.S. federal courts via habeas petitions.

A copy of the Court's decision is available here.