U.S. human rights groups have roundly condemned Thursday’s announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that the Justice Department will not pursue prosecutions of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers who may have been responsible for the deaths of two prisoners in their custody.
The announcement appeared to mark the end of all efforts by the U.S. government to hold CIA interrogators accountable for torture and mistreating prisoners detained during the so-called “Global War on Terror” launched shortly after the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
For rights activists and for supporters of President Barack Obama, it was the latest in a series of disappointing decisions, including the failure to close the detention facility at the U.S. base in Guantanamo, Cuba. They had hoped Obama would not only end the excesses of President George W. Bush’s prosecution of the war, but also conduct a full investigation of those excesses, if not prosecute those responsible.
“This is truly a disastrous development,” said Laura Pitter, counterterrorism adviser at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “To now have no accountability whatsoever for any of the CIA abuses for which there are now mountains of evidence is just appalling.”
“It completely undermines the U.S.’s ability to have any credibility on any of these issues in other countries, even as it calls for other countries to account for abuses and prosecute cases of torture and mistreatment,” she told IPS.
“Continuing impunity threatens to undermine the universally recognized prohibition on torture and other abusive treatment and sends the dangerous signal to government officials that there will be no consequences for their use of torture and other cruelty,” noted Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“Today’s decision not to file charges against individuals who tortured prisoners to death is yet another entry in what is already a shameful record.”
In his announcement, Holder suggested that crimes were indeed committed in the two cases that were being investigated by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham but that convictions were unlikely.
“Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths, the department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
The two deaths took place at a secret CIA detention facility known as the Salt Pit in Afghanistan in 2002 and at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison the following year. The victims have been identified as Gul Rahman, a suspected Taliban militant, and Manadel Al-Jamadi, an alleged Iraqi insurgent.
The two were the last reviewed by Durham, who had originally been tasked by Bush’s attorney general, Michael Mukasey, in 2008 with conducting a criminal investigation into CIA interrogators’ use of “waterboarding” against detainees and the apparently intentional destruction of interrogation videotapes that recorded those sessions.
In August 2009, Holder expanded Durham’s mandate to include 101 cases of alleged mistreatment by CIA interrogators of detainees held abroad to determine whether any of them may be liable to prosecution.
At the time, he also stressed that he would not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the controversial legal guidance given by the Bush administration regarding possible “enhanced interrogation” techniques that could be used against detainees.