GENEVA – U.S. human rights groups have announced before the UN Human Rights Committee that there are perhaps dozens of secret detention centers around the world where Washington is holding an unknown number of prisoners as part of its "war on terror."
This week in Geneva, the Committee began to examine the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, particularly with regard to its anti-terrorism activities.
On Monday, the members of the Committee, made up of 18 independent experts with recognized competence in the field of human rights, heard presentations from U.S. nongovernmental organizations that accuse Washington of grave rights violations.
Priti Patel, an attorney and representative of the New-York based group Human Rights First, reported to the Committee members on the secret detention centers for individuals allegedly linked to terrorism.
"There are locations you know about, like Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram in Afghanistan," commented Patel, "but there are other locations which you know exist, but you don’t know exactly how many or where they are."
According to Patel, these are transient facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan that are close to conflict zones, but move around to wherever the United States decides.
"There are around 20 of them in Afghanistan, but you don’t know how many people are being held there, and you don’t know how they are being treated," Patel told IPS.
"And then there is the worst-case scenario, which is you don’t know even their location," she added.
For example, Patel remarked, "We don’t know if people have been held in Diego Garcia [a small island in the Indian Ocean, home to a U.S. military base], but we have enough credible reports to make us believe it."
And while the United States refuses to deny or confirm the existence of these secret detention centers, "We know that at least 36 people have been held in secret locations," she stressed.
Monday’s meeting with U.S. human rights organizations coincided with the announcement that although the United States had been late in presenting its second and third periodic reports to this specialized UN body, the reports were finally received last week.
The latest U.S. government report to the Human Rights Committee has yet to be made public, but civil-society activists said that in addition to a general overview of compliance with the International Covenant, it also contains responses to specific questions formulated by the Committee with respect to allegations of abuse in the context of anti-terror activities.
Over recent years, the Committee has called on Washington to submit overdue reports and also to explain the consequences of the provisions adopted by the United States as part of these activities.
The Committee has expressed particular concern over the implications of the PATRIOT Act, passed in October 2001 as one of the first anti-terrorism measures adopted by the United States after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington that same year, which claimed some 3,000 lives.
Civil-society sources said that in a letter that accompanied the presentation of the report, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva, Kevin E. Moley, specified that the document also contained references to the United States’ application of the PATRIOT Act.
Moley also noted that as a matter of courtesy, the report was accompanied by a separate description of the individuals currently in the custody of the U.S. armed forces, captured during operations against the Taliban Afghan Islamic extremist movement and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, as well as those captured during the invasion and occupation of Iraq since March 2003.
This issue was one of the primary concerns expressed to the United States by the Committee, as well as the central theme of the presentations made by U.S. human rights groups to the Committee members.
Monique Beadle of the World Organization for Human Rights USA told IPS that the activists had expressed their concerns to the Committee about U.S. noncompliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but placed particular emphasis on the situation of detainees, especially those who are held in places where torture is practiced.
Beadle referred to the specific case of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a U.S. citizen who was in Saudi Arabia for religious studies when he was arrested by Saudi authorities under the direction of the United States.
He was detained incommunicado without charge for 18 months in a Saudi prison, where "he was subjected to all kinds of evil treatment," said Beadle. "There are scars on his back from the torture he was subjected to," she reported.
Beadle’s organization filed a habeas corpus on his behalf in the District of Columbia. "The judge in the case recognized that if we could show that the U.S. was playing a role in the custody and detention of Mr. Abu Ali, it could be held accountable."
The judge’s decision "was quite embarrassing for the U.S. government," she noted.
Without charges ever being laid in Saudi Arabia, Abu Ali was transferred to the United States, where he remains in custody, accused by the U.S. government of association with alleged terrorists.
"What this indicated is that the U.S. had control over his custody at all times, because at the last moment, when it was no longer convenient for him to be held in Saudi Arabia, it was very easy for them to bring him over," Beadle remarked.
Beadle also referred to the practice of transferring prisoners to countries like Egypt or Syria, where they will likely be subjected to torture.
"It is well known by the U.S military that Egypt and Syria are places where detainees are tortured, and in fact they use this knowledge to their advantage in questioning other detainees," she noted.
Beadle described the process by which detainees in Guantánamo are put in sensory deprivation and then on a plane, which flies around for several hours and lands back in Guantánamo, although the detainees are made to believe that they have been taken to Egypt.
"The guards tell them in Arabic, welcome to Egypt. If you don’t participate in this interrogation, we are going to torture you," she explained.
The UN Human Rights Committee will take the denunciations made by these nongovernmental organizations into account when it studies the report submitted by the United States, most likely during its session here next July.
The Committee is currently holding its last session of the year, which will wrap up Nov. 3. The first session next year will take place in March at UN headquarters in New York.
The report presented by the United States will not be distributed by the UN until it has been translated into all of the UN working languages, which could take at least three months. Nevertheless, the civil society groups believe that the U.S. State Department will post the report on its Web site in the coming days.