Abuse tailored to Arabs, experts say

Violations of culture, religion suggest help from higher-ranking sources

May 23, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The snowballing reports on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners suggest that U.S. authorities adapted interrogation techniques to exploit the religious and cultural sensitivities of Arabs, according to human rights monitors and experts in the treatment of torture victims.

While many of the practices revealed in photos and described in reports by the Red Cross and human rights groups have been used around the world, others appear to have been developed specifically as tools for the interrogation of Muslims, experts and rights monitors said.

Forced homosexual acts, parading naked detainees in front of female guards and other inmates, and forcing male prisoners to wear women's underwear all point to attempts to affront Muslim religious taboos and use sexual shame as a method for breaking down prisoners' resistance to interrogation, experts said.

Such cultural understanding, many of them said, suggests that the abuses attributed to low-level soldiers resulted, at least in part, from instructions by higher-ranking individuals.

"The torture they've chosen to use is so darn culturally specific," said Karen Hanscom, executive director of the Baltimore-based Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma, who has counseled torture survivors since 1993. "I think it's highly, highly doubtful that those techniques were not learned."

"I think it was definitely something that was well-planned, well-thought-out," said Said Boumedouha, an Amnesty International researcher who has made three trips to Iraq since last year's invasion and interviewed detainees who reported ill-treatment.

Leadership blamed

Pentagon officials have blamed failures of leadership at Abu Ghraib and system breakdowns that prevented top commanders from seeing reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross that documented violations of the Geneva Conventions involving prisoners.

The U.S. undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Stephen Cambone, told Congress that "the department gave direction that the Geneva Convention was to be followed." Both the Pentagon and CIA have denounced news reports linking the abuse to high-level decisions that permitted the use of harsh interrogation practices.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in an interview Friday on CNN International that responsibility for the prison abuses might turn out to have been more widespread than has so far been acknowledged.

"I listened very carefully to Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross," Armitage said. "And if it is wider, we'll find it, and we'll punish more than just the seven or so soldiers. But I suspect that as we go forward, you'll see more and more people being brought forward."

A group of 13 House Democrats led by Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota has sent a letter to President Bush demanding that the administration reverse itself and allow a United Nations special investigator on torture to investigate American detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The U.N. official, Theo van Boven, requested access to U.S. detention facilities in January but has yet to receive a reply, the members wrote. Letting him in would be "a critical step in the restoration of our credibility around the world," according to the letter.

Most of the Abu Ghraib abuses disclosed so far occurred after the U.S. military decided to coordinate the work of interrogators and prison guards. Guards have said that interrogators encouraged them to "soften up" detainees.

A Red Cross report completed in February states that in October, when the agency demanded to know why some Abu Ghraib detainees were kept naked in dark empty concrete cells, "the military intelligence officer in charge of the interrogation explained that this practice was `part of the process.'"

Describing a long list of abusive measures, the Red Cross report said, "These methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information or other forms of cooperation."

Military training

Psychological methods have long been part of U.S. military interrogations. The guide used for military intelligence officers at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., instructs interrogators to look for "indicators of any psychological or physical weakness." Questioning should "manipulate the source's emotions and weaknesses to gain his willing cooperation," according to the guide.

The Army guide forbids forms of psychological pressure that amount to torture. Yet the Red Cross and human rights monitors make clear that the evidence shows clear violations of international law. The Geneva Conventions bar not only torture but also cruel and degrading treatment.

Little information has emerged about exactly how the interrogations in Iraq were prepared or managed. But many human rights and torture experts say they doubt that the abuse was spontaneous or that responsibility for it was limited to prison guards or their supervisors.

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