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Justice for Abu Ghraib? U.S. on Trial

Wednesday 19 January 2005

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The conviction of Specialist Charles Graner for atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is a first step toward accountability for the detainee abuse scandal, but it must not be the end of the process.

Each passing day brings new evidence that the mistreatment of Muslim prisoners - far from being an isolated incident at Abu Ghraib - was widespread in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Detainees in Afghanistan were frequently beaten, held naked and deprived of sleep for long periods. Guantánamo inmates have been regularly shackled into painful positions in freezing rooms. Documents released in December describe chained Guantánamo detainees forced to sit in their own excrement, and a "competition" among army dog handlers at Abu Ghraib to "see who could make Iraqi detainees urinate themselves the fastest."

This pattern of abuse across three countries did not result from the acts of individual soldiers such as Graner who broke the rules. It resulted from decisions made by the Bush administration to bend, ignore or cast rules aside. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, publicly questioned the relevance of the Geneva conventions, hid detainees from the International Committee of the Red Cross and put into play illegal interrogation methods - such as the use of guard dogs to terrorize detainees - that have turned up again and again in abuse reports. The CIA has been authorized to hold detainees incommunicado in "secret locations" where they have reportedly been subject to even worse methods such as feigned drowning.

The Bush administration has been aware of allegations of serious abuse in Afghanistan since at least 2002, and later in Iraq. Yet the newly-released documents are as telling for what is missing as for the new indignities they narrate: At no time did Rumsfeld or any other senior leader put his foot down and warn that the mistreatment of prisoners must stop. Instead, investigations of deaths in custody languished. Soldiers and intelligence personnel accused of crimes, including all cases involving the killing of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq, escaped judicial punishment until the Abu Ghraib pictures were revealed last April. One recently revealed report to Robert Mueller 3rd, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, complained of a "cover-up" of abuses.

In the uproar after the Abu Ghraib photos, the Pentagon ordered no fewer than nine separate investigations. Two probes showed that Rumsfeld’s interrogation policies contributed to torture and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the investigators lacked the mandate - or the independence - to draw the obvious conclusions regarding the political or legal responsibility of Rumsfeld or others who approved illegal tactics such as Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. soldier in Iraq.

As a result, only a few low-ranking soldiers, such as Graner and Private First Class Lynndie England, have faced criminal charges. No soldier higher than the rank of sergeant has been charged with a crime. No civilian leader at the Pentagon or the CIA is even being investigated.

But the privates and sergeants are not the ones who cast aside the Geneva conventions, or who authorized illegal interrogation methods. Unless the higher-level officials who approved or tolerated crimes against detainees are also brought to justice, all the protestations of "disgust" at the Abu Ghraib photos by President George W. Bush and others will be meaningless. The only way that is likely to happen now is by the appointment of a special prosecutor unbeholden to the administration.

Shortly after the first photos appeared of U.S. soldiers humiliating and torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib, Secretary of State Colin Powell told foreign leaders: "Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing."

But America is not doing the right thing. Rather, the United States is doing what every dictatorship and banana republic does when its abuses are discovered: covering up and shifting blame downwards. Indeed, if there is no real accountability for these crimes, for years to come the perpetrators of atrocities around the world will point to the United States’s treatment of prisoners to deflect criticism of their own conduct.

The world is still watching - and waiting - to see how America deals with these crimes.

Reed Brody is special counsel with Human Rights Watch and author of its report “The Road to Abu Ghraib.”