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IRAQ: Interrogation and Torture

Author: Sharon Otterman
May 17, 2004
This publication is now archived.

Did the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib amount to torture?

Some of it likely did, experts say. The worst abuses—including beatings and forced sexual acts—depicted in the photographs and documented in an Army investigation of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad may qualify as torture under the term’s internationally accepted definition. As such, the abuses could be considered war crimes. But experts also caution that the line between torture and other illegal but less grave breaches of the laws of war—such as cruel, humiliating, or degrading treatment—is not clear. “It’s a question of degree, it’s a continuum,” says James Ross, the senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. In each case of abuse, lawyers must weigh the circumstances of the case and the physical and mental harm inflicted on the victim.

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What is torture?

Unlike some forms of cruel or inhumane treatment, such as neglect in an overcrowded prison, torture has to be carried out with a specific purpose in mind. That is the definition of torture in the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, an international agreement ratified by 136 nations, including the United States. According to the convention, “The term torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering—whether physical or mental—is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as”:

  • obtaining a confession from him or another person;
  • punishing him for an act he or another person has committed or is suspected of having committed; or
  • intimidating or coercing him or another person.

Who commits the abuse is also relevant. To count as torture, the act must be “inflicted by, at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

Have the reports of alleged torture at Abu Ghraib been documented?

Yes. The Red Cross, in a report presented to coalition authorities in February, said some incidents documented in Iraq between March and October 2003 “were tantamount to torture.” The internal Army investigation completed in February by Major General Antonio M. Taguba stopped short of using the word torture. Instead, it said that “several U.S. Army soldiers have committed egregious acts and grave breaches of international law at Abu Ghraib [prison] and Camp Bucca, Iraq.”

What did the Red Cross report find?

It said that ill-treatment during interrogation was systematic “in regard to persons arrested in connection with suspected security offences or deemed to have an ‘intelligence’ value.” It continued: “In these cases, [detainees] under supervision of military intelligence were at a high risk of being subjected to a variety of harsh treatments ranging from insults, threats, and humiliations to both physical and psychological coercion, which in some cases was tantamount to torture.” The Red Cross report did not specify which types of ill-treatment rose to the level of torture. But it recorded a series of abuses it found to be illegal under international law, including:

  • placing hoods on prisoners to impede proper breathing, for sometimes up to four consecutive days, sometimes in conjunction with beatings;
  • beating with hard objects, including pistols and rifles;
  • threats of ill treatment and reprisal against family members;
  • stripping detainees and leaving them naked for several days in solitary confinement in empty and lightless cells;
  • parading naked detainees, sometimes with women’s underwear over their heads, in front of other prisoners and guards; and
  • regularly handcuffing prisoners, naked or in their underwear, to cell bars in positions intended to cause great discomfort.
What did the Taguba report show?

That report found that severe mismanagement by officers and a lack of training contributed to a pattern of misconduct at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons. It also faulted an “ambiguous command relationship” between military intelligence and military police at the prison, which led to a situation in which military police became involved in preparing conditions for interrogations. Among the abuses it recorded at Abu Ghraib:

  • punching, slapping, and kicking detainees;
  • using military working dogs without muzzles to intimidate detainees, and in at least one case allowing one to bite and severely injure a detainee; and
  • forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate while being photographed and videotaped.

Seven soldiers are expected to face court-martials—three have already been scheduled—and seven supervisors have been reprimanded. Six additional investigations into the allegations of abuse are ongoing.

Is torture ever allowed?

No, under international and U.S. law. “It is absolutely prohibited and cannot be justified under any circumstances,” according to a summary of existing law on the subject by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Torture is banned by many conventions and treaties. In international law they include:

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the U.N. General Assembly. It states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
  • The 1949 Geneva Conventions, which lay out the humanitarian laws of war and occupation. Torture is considered a “grave breach” of the convention and, therefore, a war crime.
  • The 1984 Convention Against Torture, which states that “no exceptional circumstances, such as a state of war, threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency may be invoked as a justification for torture.” Further, it makes a torturer responsible for his actions even if he was ordered to commit the crime. In addition, this convention makes torture a crime of “universal jurisdiction”—any country can prosecute torture that took place anywhere in the world, regardless of whether its citizens were involved.
  • A variety of international declarations governing the proper treatment of detainees including: the 1955 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the 1979 Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, and the 1990 Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners.
How are these international laws enforced?

In general, each country is responsible for prosecuting violations of these laws by its own citizens. In practice, this has led to spotty enforcement and little accountability in countries unwilling to prosecute the crime.

What documents ban torture in U.S. law?

They include:

  • The U.S. Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”
  • The Uniform Military Code of Justice, which applies to U.S. military personnel and bans cruelty toward, or oppression or maltreatment of, any person subject to a soldier’s orders.
  • U.S. federal law, particularly U.S. Code 18, section 2340, which states that torture carries a sentence of up to 20 years, or, if the victim dies, life in prison or the death penalty. This section incorporates the 1984 Torture Convention into U.S. law with some changes.
  • The 1996 War Crimes Act makes torture and other grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions war crimes punishable by life in prison or the death penalty. It also broadens the definition of a war crime beyond what is mandated in international law. Under this act, for example, lesser violations of the Geneva Convention—for example, “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment” banned in common Article 3—can be prosecuted as war crimes.
Do some sanctioned U.S. interrogation practices cross the line into torture?

This is a matter of heated debate. U.S. officials deny that any of its sanctioned interrogation practices qualify as torture. But some human rights groups, citing legal precedents in the United States and other countries, say that some do. At issue are interrogation techniques often referred to as “stress and duress” or “coercive” practices used in some interrogations in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, as well as, some experts say, other U.S.-run detention centers in the war on terror. These techniques permit interrogators to use sensory and sleep deprivation and pain to encourage suspects to talk but are not intended to result in lasting harm. Human rights lawyers say that most of these techniques are illegal under international law. U.S. officials disagree, and say their use has been vetted and approved by Pentagon lawyers. Still, the Pentagon announced May 14 that the commanding general in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, had issued an order the day before barring the use of most coercive interrogation techniques.

Were the alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib normal “stress and duress” techniques?

No, U.S. officials say. They go well beyond what has been sanctioned by Pentagon lawyers and have been described by officials as illegal, sadistic, and aberrant acts. On the other hand, some human rights advocates charge that the use of more moderate “stress and duress techniques” created an atmosphere that allowed the abuses to occur. U.S. officials strongly deny this claim.

How do we know “stress and duress” techniques were being used?

Until recently, reports of these techniques came from unnamed U.S. officials, complaints to human rights organizations, and press reports. Since the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison erupted in late April, however, two government documents discussing such techniques have surfaced. One is an April 2003 Pentagon memo that approved some 20 interrogation techniques for war-on-terrorism detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison. This document remains classified, but some of its contents were leaked to The Washington Post and later confirmed by Pentagon officials. The other is a list of “Interrogation Rules of Engagement” that applied in Iraq. This was released by the Senate Armed Services Committee May 11 at a Senate hearing on the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

What techniques are approved for use in Guantanamo?

According to The Washington Post, they include:

  • reversing detainees’ normal sleep patterns;
  • exposing detainees to heat, cold, and “sensory assault,” including loud music and bright lights; and
  • forcing prisoners to stand for up to four hours at a time.

Interrogators must justify that harsh treatment is “militarily necessary,” according to accounts of the document. Once approved, the treatment must be accompanied by “appropriate medical monitoring.” U.S. officials have declared prisoners in Guantanamo Bay “illegal combatants” and therefore not covered by the Geneva Conventions.

Were the same techniques approved for use in Iraq?

U.S. officials say that because the protections of the Geneva Conventions apply to prisoners in Iraq, interrogation procedures approved for use there are more restrictive than those in use in Guantanamo. The list of coercive measures used in Guantanamo interrogations was given to commanders in Iraq, Lieutenant General Lance Smith, the deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, said in congressional testimony May 11. But, he said, it had been made clear that “many” of those measures could not be used.

Before they were largely banned by Sanchez’s order, approved measures in Iraq, according to the Senate list, included:

  • dietary manipulation, such as modifying meal times and food served;
  • sleep adjustment, including reversing detainees’ normal sleep patterns;
  • sleep deprivation, including keeping detainees awake for up to 72 hours;
  • isolation for longer than 30 days;
  • permitting the presence of muzzled military dogs during interrogations;
  • forcing detainees to stand or sit in an uncomfortable position for up to 45 minutes; and
  • sensory deprivation, such as complete darkness and isolation, for up to 72 hours.

Interrogators who wished to use these techniques needed Sanchez’s approval on a case-by-case basis, according to the document. Under the new policy announced May 14, only isolation for more than 30 days will be allowed and only with Sanchez’s approval, news accounts reported.

What do the Geneva Conventions say about what is permitted in interrogation?

They ban wartime interrogators from using all forms of coercion. The Third Geneva Convention, which deals with the treatment of prisoners of war, states that during interrogations, “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted. Prisoners who refuse to answer questions may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.” The Fourth Convention, which lists protections for civilians, states that “Civilians in an occupied territory must not be subject to physical or moral coercion for the purposes of obtaining information from them or third parties.”

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