The George W. Bush administration’s policies on indefinite detention and "extraordinary rendition" are coming under heavy fire from a number of institutions and organizations, including the United Nations, Amnesty International, and members of the U.S. Congress itself.
"The prohibition of torture is nonnegotiable," said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, held annually on June 26.
Without naming the United States, he added: "That includes an absolute ban on transferring anybody to another jurisdiction where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the person is at risk of torture."
Currently, the U.S. administration is pursuing a policy of what it calls "extraordinary rendition," which involves seizing suspects and taking them to a third country without court approval.
Human rights groups have documented a number of cases in which U.S. authorities secretly transferred individuals to countries where they were held without charge and routinely tortured.
One such case that came to the media’s attention last weekend is now testing diplomatic relations between the United States and Italy, with the issuance of arrest warrants for 13 agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) accused of abducting an Egyptian cleric on the streets of Milan and sending him to Egypt.
Hassan Mustafa Nasr, 42, also known as Abu Omar, was seized from the streets of Milan in February 2003 while he was on his way from his home to a mosque. His abductors sprayed his eyes with a chemical substance and threw him into a van. He was first flown to a U.S. base in Germany and from there to Egypt.
Published reports say last year Nasr was briefly released from prison. That was when he telephoned his family and friends and told them that he had been subjected to electric shocks to his genitals and had lost hearing in one hear. He has since disappeared again.
The prosecution of CIA agents in Italy is the first-ever such action against U.S. officials in connection with the "war on terrorism." Officials in both countries are tightlipped about the case, but human rights groups and prosecutors in Europe are growing increasingly angry over the U.S. practice of renditions.
They are also upset over Washington’s refusal to let independent observers visit its military prisons. On June 24 in a statement, Amnesty International demanded the United States open up all of its detention centers around the world to United Nations experts who specialize in monitoring prisoner abuse and torture.
"Not only is the U.S. failing to investigate itself fully," said the world’s largest human rights group, "it’s failing to allow external independent scrutiny by human rights experts."
The group endorsed UN human rights experts’ criticism of the United States last week for not letting them visit the U.S. military-run prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of people are behind bars on suspicion of having links to terrorist groups.
"No country is above the law," said a team of UN experts on June 23, as they tried to remind the U.S. of its legal obligations under international human rights law.
Annan said torture, in all its forms and contexts, is "unacceptable and cannot be tolerated." He emphasized Article 3 of the UN Convention Against Torture, which entails an absolute ban on transferring people to other jurisdictions where they could face torture.
The U.S. had ratified the treaty in 1994. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. followed the treaty against torture and the Geneva Conventions on rules of war. But the Bush administration now argues that the U.S. faces an unprecedented situation in which it finds itself confronted with an enemy that violates the rules of war.
Describing independent scrutiny by human right groups as essential, Amnesty said the less contact detainees have with the outside world, the greater risk of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
The group is also urging the U.S. Congress to set up an independent commission to investigate U.S. detention and interrogation policies and practices in the "war on terror" and seek UN experts’ advice to ensure impartiality in the eyes of the world.
"Torture does not stop terror," it said. "Torture is terror."
Last weekend, a delegation of U.S. lawmakers visited Guantanamo Bay prison. While some of them see the military-run prison as "an international embarrassment to our nation and our ideals," others continue to defend its existence.
Asked at a recent Senate judiciary committee hearing about the legal status of the prisoners at Guantanamo, Gen. Michael Wiggins, deputy associate attorney general, responded: "It’s our position that, legally, they can be held perpetually."
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