Heat turns up on US rights abuses

Amnesty International's 2005 report says US treatment of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners was part of a pattern.

The abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan has become a stain on the reputation of the United States that doesn't appear to be fading with time.

New allegations of mistreatment continue to surface, for one thing. Trials of US personnel accused of abuse have kept the issue in the news, for another - not to mention Newsweek's now-discredited allegation that US interrogators desecrated the Koran.

And critics continue to charge that the US has yet to admit that instances of abuse were part of a pattern - and that prisoner abuse on the part of the nation that used to be called the leader of the free world has set a terrible example for others.

"How far from the moral high ground the US government has fallen," said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, upon the release Wednesday of his organization's annual report on human rights around the world.

The US has held hundreds of people without trial or even charges at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the US airbase at Bagram in Afghanistan, said the Amnesty International report. It has gone to great lengths to restrict the use of the Geneva Convention, and "subcontracted torture," in Amnesty International's phrase, by handing over detainees to allied nations where forceful interrogation is condoned.

"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," wrote Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan in a forward to the 2005 report.

From President Bush on down, US officials have long denied that they have ever condoned the torture of prisoners. Continued news of allegations and trials shows that the US system is working, they say. In the US, mistreatment is discovered, and punished.

Nor is it fair to view what happened at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in isolation, say some officials. The US is fighting a desperate war against desperate people - insurgents who have no compunction about beheading captives on camera. To many in the US military, those are the human rights violations the world should be focusing on.

Still, the issue has not gone away. Critics claim there is a disconnect in the official explanation of what's happened, with punishment directed at US personnel at the bottom of the hierarchy, and those at the top absolved of any responsibility.

"They have been very effective at stonewalling, but slowly and steadily the truth will win out," says John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

The most recent allegations of abuse appeared Tuesday. Two US citizens of Pakistani descent were seized from their Karachi home last August, and interrogated by FBI agents in Pakistan. US agents stood by while Pakistani officials tortured the pair, who were released this spring without charges, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

The FBI denies the allegations, and stated that any assertion it condones torture is false.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, the court martial of a Navy SEAL accused of beating an alleged Iraqi insurgent got under way this week. The SEAL, Lt. Andrew Ledford, is charged with punching his captive in the arm, posing with him in photographs, and later lying about it to investigators.

According to testimony, Lieutenant Ledford delivered the captive, Manadel Jamadi, alive and kicking to CIA agents at Abu Ghraib prison about 19 months ago. Yet Jamadi died shortly thereafter.

CIA agents have not been charged in the death, although CIA officials have said they are investigating the matter. Ledford's attorneys have alleged that he is being singled out for punishment on a matter in which others share responsibility, at the least.

The scope of allegations of abuse has expanded since Abu Ghraib. That has fed the impression that there is a pattern connecting the events, says Roberta Cohen, an expert on human rights at the Brookings Institution. "It's come out little by little," she says. "And I think it's going to continue to come out."

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