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Human Rights Watch:abuses were "rooted in policies conceived at very high levels"
The Washington Times
By Anwar Iqbalbr

Washington, DC, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- A U.S. Human Rights group Thursday urged the Bush administration to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate widespread abuse of prisoners at U.S. military facilities abroad.

In its annual report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the abuses were "rooted in policies conceived at very high levels" but "only a handful of private sergeants are being blamed for it."

The group's director Kenneth Roth told United Press International that the proposed investigator should investigate higher ups -- including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales -- who were the architects of the policies that led to "torture."

"There's evidence indicating that policy decisions taken at the most senior levels led to an atmosphere that led to the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other prisons," said Roth.

"If the U.S. is to redeem its credibility, it needs not only to repudiate these practices but also to conduct an independent investigation and to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice," he added.

Asked if he believed President Bush had personally approved the policies his group blames for the abuses, Roth said, "We don't know the role of President Bush and were not trying to make cheap allegations"

"But there's clear evidence of the involvement of Gonzales and of Rumsfeld, but we, at this stage, do not know which particular individuals were involved," he said. "What we do know is that serious crimes were committed and there is a genuine need for investigation."

Roth said only the attorney general is authorized to appoint a special prosecutor and there's a long tradition for such appointments whenever there is reason to doubt the independence of the Justice Department.

"Special prosecutors were appointed for far lesser crimes, such as to investigate allegations of sexual abuse against President Clinton, and most recently under the Bush administration to determine who identified the wife of a CIA agent," said Roth.

He referred to a recent USA Today poll which said the American people overwhelmingly disapprove of torture and are outraged by the Bush administration's decision to use torture and coercive interrogation.

When asked why Bush so convincingly won the November election when so many American people were against his policies, Roth said: "I don't think anybody believed Bush was elected because of the use of torture. They elected him despite the use of torture because other things took precedence. Besides, a lot of the latest allegations have come out since the election."

Explaining his demand a special prosecutor, he said: "I don't think American people will be satisfied with the trial of low level private sergeants. There is something unseemly about senior admin officials simply blaming their low-level subordinates."

Roth said that a special prosecutor should investigate violations of two U.S. laws -- the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1994 which criminalizes torture committed anyplace in the world by U.S. forces, and the War Crimes Act of 1996, which criminalizes any serious violation of the Geneva Conventions.

"That's why the Bush administration kept saying that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the Afghan conflict," Roth said. "They were under the misguided impression that by saying that they could avoid criminal prosecution in the United States."

Roth said that there have been no prosecutions under either of those laws.

Under the Geneva Conventions, he said, one is guilty of a crime, "not simply if you direct the action, but also if as a commander of troops you learned or should have known of crimes by your troops and you don't take steps to stop it."

"In the many memos that have been released over the last few months, you never see Secretary Rumsfeld saying: 'What is going on here? Let's stop this mistreatment.' You never see Rumsfeld saying, 'End coercive interrogations,'" Roth said.

"The absence of such clear direction from the top makes Secretary Rumsfeld vulnerable to an investigation under a command responsibility theory," Roth added.

When UPI contacted Lou Fintor, a State Department spokesman, he said: "While we haven't seen the report, and don't have details of what's been said, the U.S. holds itself to the same standards that it holds other countries. When allegations of human rights abuses are identified within our country, or by our citizens, we investigate them fully and where necessary prosecute the perpetrator."

At a briefing Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Dirita said a "dozen" investigations had yielded eight or nine reports, which had not reached the same conclusion.

"The reports that have looked at policy have concluded that there is in fact no policy of abuse," Dirita said. The Schlesinger panel found that, the Kern-Fay-Jones panel found that. Admiral Church is about to wrap up his investigation, and he will conclude the same thing."

"This has been investigated ... different perspectives -- military intelligence, military police, Reserves, special operators," he added. "... There have been something on the order of four or five dozen criminal referrals already."

When it was pointed out that these were investigations were not conducted by a special prosecutor, Dirita said, "The United States military conducts criminal investigations probably on the order of tens of thousands a year. And there's a process for that. There's an entire court system established for criminal investigations within the United States military."

HRW's Washington advocacy director, Tom Malinowski, told UPI that "it has been established pretty conclusive that the abuses were widespread and were committed at the U.S. prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and in Afghanistan, not just at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison."

Malinowski said the abuses also had given repressive regimes around the world an excuse to justify the abuses they were already committed.

When reminded of the human rights violations they commit at home, such regimes now point to the United States and argue America does not have the right to say this anymore because it is doing the same at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq, the HRW official said.

He said repressive regimes had always hidden behind such excuses but now their "argument is resonating among with their own people."

"The abuses have diminished America's authority to convince them to stop," said Malinowski.

In its annual report, the Human Rights Watch maintains that unlike other nations, the United States cannot afford to lower its standards on human rights because of its high standing in the world community. "When most governments breach international human rights and humanitarian law, they commit a violation," the report said. "When a government as dominant and influential as the United States openly defies that law and seeks to justify its defiance, it also undermines the law itself and invites others to do the same."

The report also said that America's actions were hurting its fight against terrorism and in the war in Iraq, contending, "In the midst of a seeming epidemic of suicide bombings, beheadings and other attacks on civilians and noncombatants, all affronts to the most basic human rights values, Washington's weakened moral authority is felt acutely."

Human Rights Watch was also very concerned about the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan where it said millions of people have been displaced from their homes and tens of thousands have been killed.

The report was critical of the world community's lack of action in the Sudan. "Continued inaction risks undermining a fundamental human rights principle: That the nations of the world will never let sovereignty stand in the way of their responsibility to protect people from mass atrocities," Human Rights Watch said.

The Human Rights Watch World Report 2005 reviewed the state of human rights, including the prevalence of torture, religious freedom, due process under the law, racial and ethnic discrimination, and other issues.

In a separate chapter on Iran, the report accused Tehran's chief prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi of direct involvement in the torture and wrongful detention of journalists.

The said after testifying to a presidential commission about their torture during detention, a group of Iranian journalists received death threats from judicial officials under Mortazavi.