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U.S. war prisons legal vacuum for 14,000

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060917/ap_on_re_mi_ea/in_american_hands U.S. war prisons legal vacuum for 14,000 By PATRICK QUINN, Associated Press Writer 1 hour,
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 17, 2006
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060917/ap_on_re_mi_ea/in_american_hands

      U.S. war prisons legal vacuum for 14,000

      By PATRICK QUINN, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 34
      minutes ago

      BAGHDAD, Iraq - In the few short years since the first
      shackled Afghan shuffled off to Guantanamo, the U.S.
      military has created a global network of overseas
      prisons, its islands of high security keeping 14,000
      detainees beyond the reach of established law.

      Disclosures of torture and long-term arbitrary
      detentions have won rebuke from leading voices
      including the U.N. secretary-general and the
      U.S. Supreme Court. But the bitterest words come from
      inside the system, the size of several major U.S.
      penitentiaries.

      "It was hard to believe I'd get out," Baghdad
      shopkeeper Amjad Qassim al-Aliyawi told The Associated
      Press after his release — without charge — last month.
      "I lived with the Americans for one year and eight
      months as if I was living in hell."

      Captured on battlefields, pulled from beds at
      midnight, grabbed off streets as suspected insurgents,
      tens of thousands now have passed through U.S.
      detention, the vast majority in Iraq.

      Many say they were caught up in U.S. military sweeps,
      often interrogated around the clock, then released
      months or years later without apology, compensation or
      any word on why they were taken. Seventy to 90 percent
      of the Iraq detentions in 2003 were "mistakes," U.S.
      officers once told the international Red Cross.

      Defenders of the system, which has only grown since
      soldiers' photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib shocked the
      world, say it's an unfortunate necessity in the
      battles to pacify Iraq and
      Afghanistan, and to keep suspected terrorists out of
      action.

      Every U.S. detainee in Iraq "is detained because he
      poses a security threat to the government of Iraq, the
      people of Iraq or coalition forces," said U.S. Army
      Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, a spokesman for U.S.-led
      military detainee operations in Iraq.

      But dozens of ex-detainees, government ministers,
      lawmakers, human rights activists, lawyers and
      scholars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the United States
      said the detention system often is unjust and hurts
      the war on terror by inflaming anti-Americanism in
      Iraq and elsewhere.

      Building for the Long Term

      Reports of extreme physical and mental abuse,
      symbolized by the notorious Abu Ghraib prison photos
      of 2004, have abated as the Pentagon has rejected
      torture-like treatment of the inmates. Most recently,
      on Sept. 6, the Pentagon issued a new interrogation
      manual banning forced nakedness, hooding, stress
      positions and other abusive techniques.

      The same day, President Bush said the CIA's secret
      outposts in the prison network had been emptied, and
      14 terror suspects from them sent to Guantanamo Bay,
      Cuba, to face trial in military tribunals. The U.S.
      Supreme Court has struck down the tribunal system,
      however, and the White House and Congress are now
      wrestling over the legal structure of such trials.

      Living conditions for detainees may be improving as
      well. The U.S. military cites the toilets of Bagram,
      Afghanistan: In a cavernous old building at that air
      base, hundreds of detainees in their communal cages
      now have indoor plumbing and privacy screens, instead
      of exposed chamber pots.

      Whatever the progress, small or significant, grim
      realities persist.

      Human rights groups count dozens of detainee deaths
      for which no one has been punished or that were never
      explained. The secret prisons — unknown in number and
      location — remain available for future detainees. The
      new manual banning torture doesn't cover CIA
      interrogators. And thousands of people still languish
      in a limbo, deprived of one of common law's oldest
      rights, habeas corpus, the right to know why you are
      imprisoned.

      "If you, God forbid, are an innocent Afghan who gets
      sold down the river by some warlord rival, you can end
      up at Bagram and you have absolutely no way of
      clearing your name," said John Sifton of Human Rights
      Watch in New York. "You can't have a lawyer present
      evidence, or do anything organized to get yourself out
      of there."

      The U.S. government has contended it can hold
      detainees until the "war on terror" ends — as it
      determines.

      "I don't think we've gotten to the question of how
      long," said retired admiral John D. Hutson, former top
      lawyer for the U.S. Navy. "When we get up to
      'forever,' I think it will be tested" in court, he
      said.

      The Navy is planning long-term at Guantanamo. This
      fall it expects to open a new, $30-million
      maximum-security wing at its prison complex there, a
      concrete-and-steel structure replacing more temporary
      camps.

      In Iraq, Army jailers are a step ahead. Last month
      they opened a $60-million, state-of-the-art detention
      center at Camp Cropper, near Baghdad's airport. The
      Army oversees about 13,000 prisoners in Iraq at
      Cropper, Camp Bucca in the southern desert, and Fort
      Suse in the Kurdish north.

      Neither prisoners of war nor criminal defendants, they
      are just "security detainees" held "for imperative
      reasons of security," spokesman Curry said, using
      language from an annex to a
      U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the U.S.
      presence here.

      Questions of Law, Sovereignty

      President Bush laid out the U.S. position in a speech
      Sept. 6.

      "These are enemy combatants who are waging war on our
      nation," he said. "We have a right under the laws of
      war, and we have an obligation to the American people,
      to detain these enemies and stop them from rejoining
      the battle."

      But others say there's no need to hold these thousands
      outside of the rules for prisoners of war established
      by the Geneva Conventions.

      U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared last March
      that the extent of arbitrary detention here is "not
      consistent with provisions of international law
      governing internment on imperative reasons of
      security."

      Meanwhile, officials of Nouri al-Maliki's 4-month-old
      Iraqi government say the U.S. detention system
      violates Iraq's national rights.

      "As long as sovereignty has transferred to Iraqi
      hands, the Americans have no right to detain any Iraqi
      person," said Fadhil al-Sharaa, an aide to the prime
      minister. "The detention should be conducted only with
      the permission of the Iraqi judiciary."

      At the Justice Ministry, Deputy Minister Busho Ibrahim
      told AP it has been "a daily request" that the
      detainees be brought under Iraqi authority.

      There's no guarantee the Americans' 13,000 detainees
      would fare better under control of the Iraqi
      government, which U.N. officials say holds 15,000
      prisoners.

      But little has changed because of these requests. When
      the Americans formally turned over Abu Ghraib prison
      to Iraqi control on Sept. 2, it was empty but its
      3,000 prisoners remained in U.S. custody, shifted to
      Camp Cropper.

      Life in Custody

      The cases of U.S.-detained Iraqis are reviewed by a
      committee of U.S. military and Iraqi government
      officials. The panel recommends criminal charges
      against some, release for others. As of Sept. 9, the
      Central Criminal Court of Iraq had put 1,445 on trial,
      convicting 1,252. In the last week of August, for
      example, 38 were sentenced on charges ranging from
      illegal weapons possession to murder, for the shooting
      of a U.S. Marine.

      Almost 18,700 have been released since June 2004, the
      U.S. command says, not including many more who were
      held and then freed by local military units and never
      shipped to major prisons.

      Some who were released, no longer considered a threat,
      later joined or rejoined the insurgency.

      The review process is too slow, say U.N. officials.
      Until they are released, often families don't know
      where their men are — the prisoners are usually men —
      or even whether they're in American hands.

      Ex-detainee Mouayad Yasin Hassan, 31, seized in April
      2004 as a suspected Sunni Muslim insurgent, said he
      wasn't allowed to obtain a lawyer or contact his
      family during 13 months at Abu Ghraib and Bucca, where
      he was interrogated incessantly. When he asked why he
      was in prison, he said, the answer was, "We keep you
      for security reasons."

      Another released prisoner, Waleed Abdul Karim, 26,
      recounted how his guards would wield their absolute
      authority.

      "Tell us about the ones who attack Americans in your
      neighborhood," he quoted an interrogator as saying,
      "or I will keep you in prison for another 50 years."

      As with others, Karim's confinement may simply have
      strengthened support for the anti-U.S. resistance. "I
      will hate Americans for the rest of my life," he said.

      As bleak and hidden as the Iraq lockups are, the
      Afghan situation is even less known. Accounts of abuse
      and deaths emerged in 2002-2004, but if Abu
      Ghraib-like photos from Bagram exist, none have leaked
      out. The U.S. military is believed holding about 500
      detainees — most Afghans, but also apparently Arabs,
      Pakistanis and Central Asians.

      The United States plans to cede control of its Afghan
      detainees by early next year, five years after
      invading Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaida's base and
      bring down the Taliban government. Meanwhile, the
      prisoners of Bagram exist in a legal vacuum like that
      elsewhere in the U.S. detention network.

      "There's been a silence about Bagram, and much less
      political discussion about it," said Richard Bennett,
      chief U.N. human rights officer in Afghanistan.

      Freed detainees tell how in cages of 16 inmates they
      are forbidden to speak to each other. They wear the
      same orange jumpsuits and shaven heads as the
      terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, but lack even the
      scant legal rights granted inmates at that Cuba base.
      In some cases, they have been held without charge for
      three to four years, rights workers say.

      Guantanamo received its first prisoners from
      Afghanistan — chained, wearing blacked-out goggles —
      in January 2002. A total of 770 detainees were sent
      there. Its population today of Afghans, Arabs and
      others, stands at 455.

      Described as the most dangerous of America's "war on
      terror" prisoners, only 10 of the Guantanamo inmates
      have been charged with crimes. Charges are expected
      against 14 other al-Qaida suspects flown in to
      Guantanamo from secret prisons on Sept. 4.

      Plans for their trials are on hold, however, because
      of a Supreme Court ruling in June against the Bush
      administration's plan for military tribunals.

      The court held the tribunals were not authorized by
      the U.S. Congress and violated the Geneva Conventions
      by abrogating prisoners' rights. In a sometimes
      contentious debate, the White House and Congress are
      trying to agree on a new, acceptable trial plan.

      Since the court decision, and after four years of
      confusing claims that terrorist suspects were
      so-called "unlawful combatants" unprotected by
      international law, the Bush administration has taken
      steps recognizing that the Geneva Conventions' legal
      and human rights do extend to imprisoned al-Qaida
      militants. At the same time, however, the new White
      House proposal on tribunals retains such controversial
      features as denying defendants access to some evidence
      against them.

      In his Sept. 6 speech, Bush acknowledged for the first
      time the existence of the CIA's secret prisons,
      believed established at military bases or safehouses
      in such places as Egypt, Indonesia and eastern Europe.
      That network, uncovered by journalists, had been
      condemned by U.N. authorities and investigated by the
      Council of Europe.

      The clandestine jails are now empty, Bush announced,
      but will remain a future option for CIA detentions and
      interrogation.

      Louise Arbour, U.N. human rights chief, is urging Bush
      to abolish the CIA prisons altogether, as ripe for
      "abusive conduct." The CIA's techniques for extracting
      information from prisoners still remain secret, she
      noted.

      Meanwhile, the U.S. government's willingness to resort
      to "extraordinary rendition," transferring suspects to
      other nations where they might be tortured, appears
      unchanged.

      Prosecutions and Memories

      The exposure of sadistic abuse, torture and death at
      Abu Ghraib two years ago touched off a flood of
      courts-martial of mostly lower-ranking U.S. soldiers.
      Overall, about 800 investigations of alleged detainee
      mistreatment in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to
      action against more than 250 service personnel,
      including 89 convicted at courts-martial, U.S.
      diplomats told the
      United Nations in May.

      Critics protest that penalties have been too soft and
      too little has been done, particularly in tracing
      inhumane interrogation methods from the far-flung
      islands of the overseas prison system back to policies
      set by high-ranking officials.

      In only 14 of 34 cases has anyone been punished for
      the confirmed or suspected killings of detainees, the
      New York-based Human Rights First reports. The
      stiffest sentence in a torture-related death has been
      five months in jail. The group reported last February
      that in almost half of 98 detainee deaths, the cause
      was either never announced or reported as
      undetermined.

      Looking back, the United States overreacted in its
      treatment of detainees after Sept. 11, said Anne-Marie
      Slaughter, a noted American scholar of international
      law.

      It was understandable, the Princeton University dean
      said, but now "we have to restore a balance between
      security and rights that is consistent with who we are
      and consistent with our security needs."

      Otherwise, she said, "history will look back and say
      that we took a dangerous and deeply wrong turn."

      Back here in Baghdad, at the Alawi bus station, a
      gritty, noisy hub far from the meeting rooms of
      Washington and Geneva, women gather with fading hopes
      whenever a new prisoner release is announced.

      As she watched one recent day for a bus from distant
      Camp Bucca, one mother wept and told her story.

      "The Americans arrested my son, my brother and his
      friend," said Zahraa Alyat, 42. "The Americans
      arrested them October 16, 2005. They left together and
      I don't know anything about them."

      The bus pulled up. A few dozen men stepped off, some
      blindfolded, some bound, none with any luggage, none
      with familiar faces.

      As the distraught women straggled away once more, one
      ex-prisoner, 18-year-old Bilal Kadhim Muhssin, spotted
      U.S. troops nearby.

      "Americans," he muttered in fear. "Oh, my God, don't
      say that name," and he bolted for a city bus, and
      freedom.

      ___

      EDITOR'S NOTE — The Associated Press staff in Baghdad
      and AP writers Andrew Selsky in San Juan, Puerto Rico;
      Matthew Pennington in Kabul, Afghanistan; Anne Plummer
      Flaherty in Washington, and Charles J. Hanley in New
      York contributed to this report.
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