Tuesday, December 06, 2005

US Defense of Torture Transport Makes No Sense Says Legal Expert

Common Dreams
The robust defense of rendition offered yesterday by the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, marks the export to a European audience of a position on torture that is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for the Bush administration.

Ms Rice's arguments yesterday hinge on her insistence that rendition was a legitimate and necessary tool for the changed circumstances brought by the war on terror. "The captured terrorists of the 21st century do not fit easily into traditional systems of criminal or military justice," she said.

Ms Rice went on to note that the practice had been deployed "for decades" before the terror attacks of September 11 2001. "Its use is not unique to the United States, or to the current administration," she said.

However, her assurances that spiriting terror suspects away to clandestine prisons is a legitimate tactic did not carry much weight with human rights organisations or legal scholars yesterday.

They argued that the sole use of extraordinary rendition was to transport a suspect to a locale that was beyond the reach of the law - and so at risk of torture.

"The argument makes no sense unless there is an assumption that the purpose of rendition is to send people to a place where things could be done to them that could not be done in the United States," said David Luban, a law professor at Georgetown University who is presently a visiting professor at Stanford University.

"Rendition doesn't become a tool in the war against terror unless people are being sent to a place where they can be interrogated harshly."

In her statement yesterday, Ms Rice said rendition was necessary in instances where local governments did not have the capacity to prosecute a terror suspect, or in cases where al-Qaida members were operating in remote areas far from an operational justice system.

However, the majority of the two dozen or so terror suspects known to have been subjected to rendition were captured in urban areas. Some were taken in Europe.

"Most of the ghost detainees on the list were captured in major cities like Bangkok and Karachi," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

Amid the outrage in Europe over the secret prisons, the administration faces calls at home from Democrats for an investigation into the treatment of so-called "ghost detainees". The vice-president, Dick Cheney, meanwhile, has been criticised for resisting efforts to include the CIA in a ban on "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of detainees.

However, in her remarks yesterday, Ms Rice appeared to offer repeated and firm assurances that al-Qaida suspects transported to clandestine prisons for interrogation would not be subjected to torture. "The US does not permit, tolerate or condone torture under any circumstances," she said.

Critics say that depends on one's definition of torture. During the last four years, they say the Bush administration has adopted an exceedingly narrow definition of torture, allowing interrogators to use a variety of harsh techniques such as stress positions, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding, where suspects are strapped to a board and plunged into water.

"The reason she is able to say that the United States does not engage in torture is that the administration has redefined torture to exclude any technique that they use," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "What makes this awkward for Secretary Rice is that the state department has continued to condemn as torture techniques such as waterboarding when they are used by other countries - in other words the very techniques the CIA has used against these high level detainees."

Other critics noted yesterday that the utility of information gathered under duress was also unclear. Some intelligence gathered from such suspects has proved unreliable most notoriously in the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who told his interrogators before the war in Iraq that Saddam Hussein's regime was training al-Qaida terrorists in the use of chemical and biological weapons.

Al-Libi later recanted, but the flawed intelligence was used by the then secretary of state, Colin Powell, in March 2003 to make his case for war to the United Nations.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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