Monday, July 24, 2006

Authorised and routine

Since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke last year, the US government has adopted a consistent line on the torture and abuse of prisoners in its care. Such treatment is an aberration, they say, the product of a few sadists and "bad apples" who will be punished for their crimes.

Unfortunately, it just isn't true. The rot goes deeper than that.

Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has interviewed soldiers who witnessed and in some cases participated in the torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq. And one thing is absolutely consistent from their stories: these activities were authorised and routine, carried out with the full knowledge and support of at least the local chain of command. According to the report's summary:

In all three locations, soldiers witnessed seriously abusive treatment and interrogation of detainees, including beatings, psychological torture of varying kinds, and other physical torture and mistreatment. At Camp Nama, for instance, detainees were regularly stripped naked, subjected to sleep deprivation and extreme cold, placed in painful stress positions, and beaten. At FOB Tiger, they were held without food or water for over 24 hours at a time, in temperatures sometimes exceeding 135 degrees Fahrenheit, and then taken into interrogations where they were beaten and subjected to threats. At Mosul, detainees were regularly subject to extreme sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme cold, forced exercises, and were threatened with military guard dogs.

In all three locations, the abuses appear to have been part of a regularized process of detainee abuse—“standard operating procedure,” in the words of some of the soldiers.

As usual, its worse when you read the actual details. The creepiest bit is Camp Nama, where in what seems to be a deliberate attempt to prevent soldiers from identifying one another to a future prosecution, there were no ranks, uniforms, or surnames; everyone from the CO down was on a first-name basis. For the military, this is unusual, to say the least.

More evidence that the abuse was condoned is seen in the treatment of those who complained about what was going on. They were discouraged, ignored, and ultimately threatened if they pressed the issue.

HRW is recommending an independent commission to investigate detainee abuse, as well as independent prosecutors to ensure that those responsible are held accountable, all the way up the chain of command. But the chances of that happening under the reign of the President for torture are pretty remote.