One Year Later, Abu Ghraib Scandal Seen as ‘Tip of Iceberg’

Rights watchdogs have seized on this week’s anniversary of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal to protest what they termed a lack of accountability for the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody, and to warn that problems which came to light at the prison in Iraq merely were “the tip of the iceberg.”

The U.S. public saw the first images of prisoners being tortured by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib one year ago Thursday.

“Abu Ghraib was only the tip of the iceberg,” said Reed Brody, special counsel to Human Rights Watch (HRW). “It’s now clear that abuse of detainees has happened all over, from Guantánamo Bay to a lot of third-country dungeons where the United States has sent prisoners. And probably quite a few other places we don’t even know about.”

Prisoners in U.S. custody have been tortured and abused at numerous detention facilities around the world, HRW said in a new report. It summarized allegations of abuse at U.S. facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba and reiterated its call for independent investigations of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials who it said may have had roles in the mistreatment.

The report cited U.S. government data showing that 108 people have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, including deaths attributed to natural causes, and that 27 deaths have been investigated as criminal homicides involving possible abuse.

It said the alleged abuse included beatings, sleep deprivation, and exposure to extreme cold in Afghanistan and routine subjection to stress positions and sleep deprivation in Iraq. Former detainees at the detention center of the U.S. naval enclave in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba have described threats of torture and death, the use of military dogs to intimidate them, and exposure to severe heat and cold, the report said.

At least 11 al-Qaeda suspects, and likely many more, are being held at undisclosed locations with no oversight of their treatment, the report said, adding that other prisoners have been transferred to countries known to practice torture.

HRW had issued another report Sunday calling for a criminal investigation of senior U.S. intelligence and military officials it said may have condoned or ignored the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and other locations.

The Pentagon (U.S. Defense Department) has said it probed alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere and that dozens of incidents of confirmed prisoner abuse were the work of low-level soldiers and a few inattentive mid-level officers.

“The Department of Defense has demonstrated a record that credible allegations of illegal conduct by U.S. military personnel are taken seriously and investigated,” the Pentagon said in a recent statement.

Military officials have said the abuse at Abu Ghraib stemmed in part from ambiguities in existing instruction manuals for interrogators. The U.S. Army announced Wednesday it is preparing a new manual designed to eliminate those ambiguities and clearly spell out the limits to which interrogators can go in trying to get prisoners to talk.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is suing Rumsfeld over prisoner abuse, assailed the Pentagon’s investigations and what it termed continuing secrecy about the treatment of prisoners.

“A year after the release of the photos, top officials have not been held accountable while low-level members of the military have been prosecuted and an unwarranted cloak of secrecy continues to shroud the treatment of prisoners,” said Anthony Romero, ACLU executive director.

Human Rights First said a number of senior officers and defense officials had been promoted rather than punished for their alleged role in promoting, condoning, or ignoring the abuses. Formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the group has joined the ACLU in suing Rumsfeld.

“Those in charge of detention and interrogation operations and policies when the torture at Abu Ghraib first became public have been promoted,” said Michael Posner, the group’s executive director.

Alberto Gonzales, for example, helped prepare the administration’s case for relaxing interrogation rules and “was among the first to embrace the no-rules-apply approach to the ‘war on terror’,” and subsequently advanced to his current job as U.S. attorney general, Human Rights First said.

“The month after the Abu Ghraib photos became public, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, formerly in charge of interrogations at Guantánamo and credited with instituting the use of dogs at Abu Ghraib, was assigned to be senior commander in charge of detention operations in Iraq,” the group added.

Jay Bybee, a former assistant attorney general and the principal author of a memo defining torture so narrowly as to require an act to “be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” was appointed as a judge on the federal appeals court, Human Rights First said.

William Haynes, who as Defense Department general counsel recommended over the protests of military lawyers many of the most abusive tactics used at Guantánamo, has been nominated to the federal appeals bench, it added.

Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who oversaw detention facilities in Iraq and was “excoriated in Pentagon reports for his role in letting torture continue under his command,” was named the head of the Army’s 5th Corps in Europe, the rights group said.

Indeed, “the highest ranking service member successfully prosecuted has been Marine Major Clarke Paulus, who was dismissed from the service without jail time after being convicted for his role in the strangulation death of a non-Abu Ghraib detainee.”

More than 11,000 people are in U.S. detention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, Human Rights First said. In Iraq alone, the detainee population has doubled in the past five months, “rapidly approaching the level it was when the abuses documented in the Abu Ghraib photos occurred.”