Amnesty International called the U.S. military's prison at Guantanamo Bay the "gulag of our times" yesterday and warned that American leaders might face international prosecution for mistreating prisoners.
"When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a license to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity," Amnesty Secretary-General Irene Khan said at a London news conference releasing the group's annual report on global human rights, a blistering, 308-page survey.
The influential human rights monitoring group has criticized U.S. detention practices before. But yesterday marked its first call for closing Guantanamo, and the group used unusually sharp language in demanding an independent investigation of torture and abuse of prisoners there and at detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If U.S. officials don't act, other countries will, warned Amnesty's U.S. director, William F. Schulz. "The apparent high-level architects of torture should think twice before planning their next vacation to places like Acapulco or the French Riviera because they may find themselves under arrest," he said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the charges of widespread abuse "ridiculous" and said the United States was on top of the situation. "We hold people accountable when there's abuse," he said. "We take steps to prevent it from happening again."
The Amnesty report focused in part on past events, such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Bush administration legal memos narrowing the definition of torture, and more than a half-dozen deaths of prisoners in custody. But it also reflected increasing concerns about conditions at Guantanamo, where about 550 prisoners from more than 30 nations are held as "enemy combatants," outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
Released Guantanamo prisoners have complained of brutal interrogations and inhumane treatment, and lawyers, who got access to the prison under a Supreme Court decision last year, have questioned the government's basis for holding many of the prisoners. FBI agents, in memos released late last year, questioned the use of painful stress positions and other tactics during military interrogations.
News reports about alleged Quran desecration by Guantanamo guards triggered deadly riots in Afghanistan this month, and yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union released a new set of FBI memos obtained under freedom-of-information laws that indicated agents were told by Guantanamo prisoners in 2002 and 2003 of Quran desecration, beatings and sexual assaults.
To date, the portions of military investigations made public have found only limited abuses by low-level soldiers and officers, but yesterday, a bipartisan group of more than 30 lawyers, former military officers and former government officials assembled by the Constitution Project, a Washington advocacy group, echoed Amnesty's call for an independent investigation of prisoner abuse.
The signers - including former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta; David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union; and former FBI Director William S. Sessions - said a comprehensive study by a group modeled after the Sept. 11 Commission was needed. One signer, Kevin Barry, a retired Coast Guard captain and military judge, said military probes suffered from an inability to point the finger at higher-ups in the Pentagon.
"You can't indict the boss," Barry said. "But we have so much evidence of abuse in so many locations that to say it's a couple of bad people here or there has lost credibility with the public."
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