Amid efforts by a bipartisan coalition in Congress to ban torture and inhumane treatment of detainees in the "war on terror," a major U.S. human rights groups charged Monday that Washington ran a secret prison in Afghanistan where suspected terrorists were held in total darkness for days and even weeks at a time from 2002 until at least last year.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the prison was known by the inmates as the "dark prison" or "prison of darkness" where they were chained to the walls, deprived of food and drinking water, and continuously subjected to loud heavy-metal or rap music apparently designed to disorient them and break down their will.
Their shackles often made it impossible to lie down or sleep, and interrogations carried out apparently by civilian U.S. personnel presumed to be Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives included slaps and punches. Guards at the prison were mostly Afghan, according to the report.
According to HRW, the prison was off-limits to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or other independent agencies.
"We’re not talking about torture in the abstract, but the real thing," said HRW’s John Sifton. "U.S. personnel and officials may be criminally liable, and a special prosecutor is needed to investigate."
The HRW release, which was based primarily on accounts given to their lawyers by seven detainees currently being held at the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, came as top U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, continued to deny that the Bush administration had ever approved the use of torture or inhumane treatment of terrorist suspects.
During a White House meeting Thursday with Sen. John McCain, who has led the congressional drive to ban torture and inhumane treatment in the "war on terror," Bush, who had for several months threatened to veto such legislation if it reached his desk, insisted that his administration was innocent.
"We’ve been happy to work with [McCain] to achieve a common objective," he said, after a lopsided vote the day before in the House of Representatives in favor of the McCain amendment, "and that is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention on torture, whether it be here, at home, or abroad."
But that position has been increasingly difficult to sustain, as more and more details and dissent from the CIA rank and file about the treatment of detainees has leaked to the media and Congress.
Indeed, the Senate this week is expected to approve a resolution that will require the administration to provide detailed reports every 90 days about secret detention facilities maintained by the U.S. overseas and the treatment and condition of each prisoner.
Such secret facilities have also become a source of contention and embarrassment between the U.S. and its European allies. After the Washington Post reported last month that the CIA has maintained secret prisons in Eastern Europe notably Poland and Romania, according to HRW and other rights groups the European Union, as well as individual governments, launched investigations.
Since the Post‘s disclosure, the Europe-based facilities have reportedly closed down, and the detainees who were being held there have been transported to sites in North Africa.
The CIA is believed to be holding between 24 and 36 alleged "high-value" targets, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, incommunicado at secret sites around the world. Many of these individuals were initially seized in foreign countries and taken across international borders for interrogation.
The "dark prison" appears to have been one of these sites, at least for the purposes of screening detainees for their intelligence value.
HRW, which has repeatedly been denied access to Guantanamo prisoners, has not interviewed any of the detainees directly. Their allegations were instead communicated to HRW through their attorneys but, according to the rights group, are sufficiently consistent and credible to warrant an official investigation.
Most of the detainees said they were apprehended in other countries in Asia and the Middle East and then flown to Afghanistan. From time to time, some detainees were transferred to another secret facility, and all were eventually transferred to the main U.S. detention facility near Bagram air base. None claimed to have been detained at the "dark prison" for more than six weeks at a time.
One of the detainees whose attorney insisted that he be referred to only as "M.Z.," said he had been in the prison for about four weeks. He said he was held in solitary confinement, where it was "pitch black and light," but for interrogations was taken to a room with a strobe light and shackled to the floor. In one session, he claimed to have been threatened with rape by one of his interrogators.
A second, Ethiopian-born but British-raised detainee, Benyam Mohammed, told his attorney in English he was held at the "dark prison" last year. "It was pitch black, no lights on in the rooms for most of the time," he reported. "They hung me up. I was allowed a few hours of sleep on the second day, then hung up again, this time for two days." For 20 days, the music of Eminem and Dr. Dre was blared into their cells.
"The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night," he told his lawyer. "Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off."
Yet another detainee, whose name was withheld at his attorney’s request, reported a similar ordeal, noting that "people were screaming in pain and crying all the time."
Four other Guantanamo detainees Abd al-Salam Ali al-Hila, Hassin bin Attash, Jamil el-Banna, and Bisher al-Rawi gave similar accounts, as did yet another whose lawyer declined to identify him by name.
HRW noted that the accounts given by the seven detainees were consistent with those given by four detainees who escaped from the Bagram facility last July on a videotape later acquired by ABC News and al-Arabiya.
(Inter Press Service)