Report: 11 ‘Disappeared’ in U.S. War on Terror

Eleven prisoners captured by the Bush administration in its “war on terrorism” have disappeared, opening a “gateway” to torture and other abuses prohibited by global law, says a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

U.S. officials have confirmed they have six of the detainees in custody, according to the document, “Disappeared: The CIA’s Long-Term ‘Ghost’ Detainees,” by the New York-based group.

“In each case, however, the United States has not only failed to register the detainees, but has also refused to disclose their fate or their whereabouts and thus removed them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time,” adds the 46-page document.

That could open the door to torture, says HRW. But “the primary concern [about the ‘ghosts’] must stem, first and foremost, from the acceptance of methods which are antithetical to a democracy and which betray the U.S.’ identity as a nation of law,” it adds, noting that the 11 “disappeared” are reportedly members of the al-Qaeda terrorist group.

“For al-Qaeda, the ends apparently justify the means, means which have included smashing hijacked planes into buildings and bombing train stations and places of worship. The United States should not endorse that logic.”

“‘Disappearances’ were a trademark abuse of Latin American military dictatorships in their ‘dirty war’ on alleged subversion,” said Reed Brody, special counsel with HRW, in a news release. “Now they have become a United States tactic in its conflict with al-Qaeda.”

The report follows a June release by the U.S. organization Human Rights First, which described a series of secret jails worldwide where U.S. intelligence agencies have hidden terror suspects from scrutiny.

It predicted more strongly than the HRW report that the move would lead to abuse.

“What is unknown about this detention system still outweighs what is known about it,” said Human Rights First. “But facilities within it share in common key features that – while having unclear benefits in the nation’s struggle against terrorism – make inappropriate detention and abuse not only likely, but virtually inevitable.”

The “ghost detainees” were first described in a U.S. military report released earlier this year that revealed the extent of abuse of prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib jail, following the international publication of leaked photos that showed detainees being sexually humiliated by U.S. soldiers.

HRW quotes the military report’s conclusion on the detainees: “This maneuver was deceptive, contrary to army doctrine, and in violation of international law.”

Subsequent probes have put the number of “ghost” prisoners at anywhere from two dozen to 100.

Beyond the 11 detainees it describes, HRW suggests, “there may well be several or many more such detainees.”

The organization says it “has no firsthand information on the treatment of these detainees, but press accounts have repeatedly cited unnamed government officials acknowledging the torture or mistreatment of some of the detainees.”

One such report concerns Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, who the Bush administration has acknowledged is in custody.

HRW quotes from an account in the New York Times describing use of “graduated force” on Mohammed, “including a technique known as ‘water boarding,’ in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown.”

“Mohammed’s two young sons were also taken into custody and there have been reports that the CIA is holding them as an inducement to make him talk,” adds the report.

The human rights group says it has repeatedly requested information on another detainee, Hambali, but has yet to get a response from the U.S. government. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also been stymied, adds HRW, quoting an ICRC official.

Hambali is implicated in the Bali bombings of 2002 and was arrested in Thailand last year. Soon after his arrest he was handed over, by Thai police, to U.S. authorities.

“We are more and more concerned about the lot of the unknown number of people captured in the context of what we would call ‘the war against terror’ and detained in secret places,” ICRC’s Erof Bosisio was quoted in news reports.

“We have asked for information on these people and access to them. Until now we have received no response from the Americans,” he added.

Commenting on abuses at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. military jails, the HRW report suggests, “If abuses took place in these places, visited by the ICRC and subject, in theory at least, to various forms of oversight, it would not be surprising if abuse were also perpetrated against ‘ghost detainees’ in secret detention centers where the recognized protections against mistreatment are not present.”

“More to the point, it is impossible to know whether more or less information, or information of greater accuracy, could have been gathered had the detainees been held and treated in accordance with the law. A number of doubts have been expressed regarding the accuracy of the accounts provided by the ‘disappeared’ detainees,” adds the report.

It quotes James Schlesinger, chairman of an independent panel that reviewed the Pentagon’s treatment of prisoners in response to the Abu Ghraib scandal. “The CIA was allowed to operate under different rules,” Schlesinger told Congress.

“It is not clear what these rules are, however,” says HRW, but suggests they can be traced to a secret Aug. 1, 2002, Justice Department memorandum to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales in response to a CIA request for guidance.

Among other things, “that memo, prepared by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee [now a federal appeals court judge] said that torturing al-Qaeda detainees in captivity abroad ‘may be justified,’ and that international laws against torture ‘may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations’ conducted in the war on terrorism,” says HRW.

The report recommends that Washington provide the ICRC “unrestricted access” to all prisoners of anti-terrorist operations and ensure that all such detentions are subject to periodic judicial oversight or to the protections of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.

Finally, “take the necessary legislative steps to ensure that the commission of a ‘disappearance’ constitutes a criminal offense, punishable by sanctions commensurate with the gravity of the practice,” urges the report.

(Inter Press Service)