Survey: US Public Rejects Torture

Two-thirds of U.S. citizens believe their government should “never use physical torture” against detainees, and 90 percent reject sexually humiliating prisoners, as was done by U.S. soldiers at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib jail, according to a major survey of attitudes here.

The poll, conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), was released Thursday amid new reports of abuses by U.S. soldiers of Iraqi and other detainees. It also found that 60 percent of the U.S. public believe that all captured individuals should have the right to appeal their status to a neutral judge, even if they are not conventional soldiers as defined by the Geneva Conventions.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said a soldier should have the right to refuse to follow an order if he or she believes it was a violation of international law.

It also found that supporters of Republican President George W. Bush were more likely to support harsher treatment of detainees than independents or respondents who said they intended to vote for Bush’s Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry in the November elections.

Forty-four percent of the 892 randomly chosen adults said they intended to vote for Kerry; 40 percent for Bush; four percent for independent candidate Ralph Nader, while the rest gave no answer or were undecided.

The poll results, which also suggested the public is more willing to consider psychological techniques, such as sleep deprivation and hooding, than physical abuse or torture in trying to extract information from detainees, nonetheless showed strong rejection of methods that were designed to provoke fear or humiliation.

Nine out of 10 respondents, for example, said they would oppose sexually humiliating detainees – as depicted in the notorious photos taken at Abu Ghraib last October – under even the most urgent circumstances.

“Basically, the public supports the system of international laws restricting torture and coercion, though it would consider making some limited exceptions on the edges if there was high confidence that a catastrophic outcome would be prevented,” said Steven Kull, PIPA’s executive director.

The survey results were released just as U.S. Army Inspector General (IG), Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek told a Senate hearing his office had documented 94 cases of confirmed or alleged abuse, of which eight were related to prisoner interrogations, by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan since the fall of 2001.

It was by far the highest Pentagon figure to date of alleged abuse cases. Mikolashek, whose five-month investigation is just one of 11 on alleged abuses being carried out by the Pentagon, also reported that the United States has held more than 50,000 prisoners in the two countries during that time.

His report, which said the cases included theft, physical assault, sexual assault and death, insisted, “the abuses that have occurred are not representative of policy, doctrine or soldier training.” But it also quoted a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from last February that asserted abuses were “used in a systematic way” by the military in Iraq.

“The IG’s report is the most powerful evidence yet of the breadth of the problems in U.S. detention and interrogation in the ‘war on terrorism,'” said Deborah Pearlstein, director of the U.S. Law and Security Program at Human Rights First (HRF).

“Ninety-four documented cases of abuse is not an isolated problem – it’s bad policy that needs to be fixed in a comprehensive way,” she added, reiterating recent calls by HRF and other international human rights groups for a comprehensive investigation of abuses, to be conducted by an independent commission or court of inquiry.

The PIPA survey, by far the most comprehensive on the subject of detainee abuse and attitudes toward torture since the “war on terror” was launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, was conducted July 9-15 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent.

Nearly nine in 10 respondents said they favored complying with international law regarding the treatment of prisoners as a general principle: 92 percent said they believed the names of all detainees must be registered and given access to the ICRC; 81 percent said detainees should have the right to a hearing before an independent judge to challenge the government’s right to hold him; 77 percent said they should have the right to contact their families.

Asked whether unconventional fighters, and specifically alleged members of the al-Qaeda terrorist group believed responsible for the 9/11 attacks, should be accorded the same rights, 60 percent agreed while 37 percent disagreed. A majority of 53 percent of self-identified Republicans, however, said they disagreed.

When respondents were told that the Supreme Court had recently overruled the Bush administration’s contention that it was not required to give detainees an independent hearing, 68 percent said they agreed with the court.

Asked about a range of interrogation techniques approved by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, nearly two-thirds of respondents – including a slight majority of Kerry supporters – said they favored using sleep deprivation in a situation where there is a strong chance that the detainee has information about a possible terrorist attack on the United States that may prove critical to thwarting it.

Fifty-six percent said they would favor keeping a hood over the detainee’s head or bombarding him with loud noise for long periods of time to obtain the information. A slight majority of 52 percent said they favored using “stress” positions for an extended period under those circumstances.

But majorities ranging from 54 percent (withholding food and water) and 58 percent (using threatening dogs to frighten detainees) to 81 percent (beating, submersing or electric shock) to 89 percent (sexual humiliation) opposed such techniques even in the most urgent circumstances. Seventy-five percent of respondents said forcing detainees to go naked – a practice that, according to a variety of reports, was relatively common – could not be justified under any circumstances.

The survey found that those respondents who supported such techniques were significantly more likely to support Bush and identify themselves as Republicans than Kerry supporters or self-described Democrats or independents.

Asked how Bush’s handling of the treatment of detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay will affect their vote, 37 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for him, while 22 percent said more likely – a net negative of 15 percent. The rest offered no opinion.

But many respondents were unaware that Rumsfeld had approved some of these interrogation techniques; specifically, only 35 percent knew that he had approved of making detainees go naked, and 45 percent said they were aware he had approved of using threatening dogs. Of those who were aware of his approval of such methods, 59 percent said they were less likely to vote for Bush, while nine percent said it made it more likely they would vote for him.

Norman Ornstein, a public-opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said he thought the political impact of the prisoner-abuse scandal would be directed less at voter attitudes toward Bush than toward the situation in Iraq, particularly because it has undermined the moral justification for the occupation.

“Since Abu Ghraib, we’ve seen a steadily deteriorating percent of Americans who believe we did the right thing in going into Iraq,” he said, noting that Bush is more likely to be hurt by the voters’ disillusionment than by the perception that he was responsible for the abuses.

Ornstein also suggested that the beliefs expressed in the survey could change with events. “If this survey [were taken] one or two months after 9/11, you might have gotten a very difficult result,” he said, adding that the attitudes could also change if another terrorist attack takes place.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.