NEW YORK – Even as the alleged ringleader of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal faces court-martial Friday, human rights groups are questioning whether his case is really the "aberration" the Pentagon claims.
"The trial of Charles Graner is a first step toward accountability, but no one should confuse it with the end of the process," said Reed Brody, special counsel at Human Rights Watch. "The issue isn’t only who was the local ringleader, but whether his superiors led him to believe he had permission to engage in such atrocities."
The scope of U.S. mistreatment of prisoners, at home and abroad, has continued to widen in recent weeks, even as the government is reportedly considering building a $25 million, 200-bed prison to hold detainees who are unlikely to ever appear before a military tribunal for lack of evidence.
In December, a federal court ordered the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to turn over documents to human rights groups that it had previously refused to divulge regarding prisoner abuse by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, under a law that allows citizens access to public records.
Government lawyers contended that the spy agency should be allowed to complete its internal investigation before turning over the documents, an argument rejected by the court.
Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the plaintiff in the case, told IPS that the decision "recognized that, at least in certain circumstances, the Freedom of Information Act gives the public the right to information about CIA activity."
"We have insisted from the outset that the public has a right to know whether CIA personnel are engaged in the abuse and torture of detainees," he said. "Judge Hellerstein’s ruling is an important step toward vindicating that right."
He added that the CIA has not yet said whether it will appeal the order.
The ACLU suit is also seeking information about so-called "ghost detainees" prisoners held by the CIA who were not registered so that they would escape discovery by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Army investigations had previously confirmed the existence of these practices, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference months ago that he had complied with a CIA request to conceal at least one prisoner. Since then, Army investigators have estimated that the number of "ghost detainees" could be as many as 100.
Meanwhile, the new inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has begun an "intensive audit of the immigration detention system … seeking information from government, non-governmental organizations, attorneys with currently detained clients and.detainees themselves." Inspector generals are frequently critical of their own agencies. They can be removed by the president, and President George W. Bush recently fired the inspector general of the DHS. He had issued many critical reports about the mismanagement and security flaws at the huge department. The new inspector general said this week that his office would look into allegations of mistreatment, including physical and sexual abuse, and cases of hunger strike and attempted suicide.
A leading authority on the U.S. immigration detention system, Mark Dow, author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons, had a mixed reaction to the investigation.
"It’s certainly a good thing that investigators will be looking at a few detention centers," he told IPS. "But truly independent monitoring and reforms must come from outside DHS. After all, criminals don’t punish themselves."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government rounded up some 5,000 aliens, mostly Arabs and other Muslims. Many were held for long periods, without access to their families or to legal counsel. Many were deported for visa violations. In some cases, they were returned to countries where they would likely face abuse in detention. None was ever charged with a terror-related crime.
When the Department of Homeland Security was established, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was split into three new agencies. All are part of the DHS. The service operates detention centers throughout the U.S., and also uses traditional jails and prisons, including many operated by private contractors. The centers have been called the country’s most secretive prison system.
According to the Washington Post, the prison issue arose because Bush administration officials are preparing long-range plans for indefinitely jailing suspected terrorists they do not want to set free or turn over to U.S or foreign courts.
One option under this proposal would "render" large numbers of Afghan, Saudi, and Yemeni detainees from the U.S. military’s Guantanamo Bay detention center to new U.S.-built prisons in their home countries. According to the newspaper, "the prisons would be operated by those countries, but the State Department, where this idea originated, would ask them to abide by recognized human rights standards and would monitor compliance."
In the past, the legitimacy of such assurances has been widely questioned by human rights groups and legislators because the countries to which prisoners are "rendered" have well-documented histories of prisoner torture and death in detention.
Since the 1990s, the CIA has secretly transferred captives it picks up abroad to third countries. The transfers, called "renditions," depend on arrangements between the United States and other countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Afghanistan, which agree to have local security services hold certain terror suspects secretly and without access to due process for interrogation by CIA and foreign intelligence officers.
Renditions were originally a way of picking up drug dealers and other criminals abroad, and delivering them to courts in the United States or other countries. But since 2001, the practice has been used against terror suspects to ensure that these detainees do not go to court or back on the streets.
An alternative to the transfer plan would be the construction of a $25 million, 200-bed prison in the U.S. "to hold detainees who are unlikely to ever go through a military tribunal for lack of evidence," Pentagon officials told the Washington Post. The prison reportedly would be modeled on a U.S. prison and would allow socializing among inmates.
The idea of holding detainees potentially for life has drawn criticism from human rights groups and from some legislators.
"There must be some modicum, some semblance of due process … if you’re going to detain people, whether it’s for life or whether it’s for years," said Sen. Carl M. Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.