Prisoner abuse: US backs down over immunity for soldiers

Outrage as documents reveal approved interrogation techniques
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The Independent US

The US bowed yesterday to international outrage over prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan by abandoning its bid to secure a United Nations exemption for its soldiers from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court (ICC).

The US bowed yesterday to international outrage over prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan by abandoning its bid to secure a United Nations exemption for its soldiers from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court (ICC).

The about-turn at the UN came less than 24 hours after the White House released secret internal documents on the treatment of enemy prisoners - again in an attempt to dispel suggestions that it condoned the abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

The decision not to seek a new resolution exempting US personnel from overseas prosecution is an astonishing climbdown for an administration that had vowed to have no truck with the ICC, and had previously threatened to veto all UN peacekeeping missions to get its way.

But opposition on the 15-member Security Council was overwhelming, especially after Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, declared last week that a resolution sent "an unfortunate signal at any time - but particularly at this time".

The two moves underline how, despite the punishment being meted out to the Abu Ghraib guards involved in the abuse, the scandal continues to damage the Bush administration.

Documents released in Washington set out harsh interrogation techniques for terrorist and enemy prisoners but - the White House claims - make clear that outright torture has never been permitted.The documents contain elaborate lists of permissible, relatively innocuous sounding, methods of interrogation. But they also reveal that harsher techniques, including stripping prisoners, placing them in hoods and using dogs to terrify them, were approved for several months, before apparently being revoked in April 2003.

In a memo five months after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, Mr Bush declared that "new thinking into the law of war" was needed, and that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qa'ida prisoners in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But Mr Bush instructed that prisoners be treated "humanely," and in accordance with the conventions "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military neccessity". Bush/Cheney campaign managers hope that the unprecedented release of secret material will draw a line under the controversy.

But last night Democrats signalled they had no intention of dropping the issue. Nor do the disclosures answer the underlying question of whether the administration tacitly condoned tougher techniques that amounted to torture.

The insouciant mood at the Pentagon is captured in a November 2002 "action memo" in which Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, approved the stripping of prisoners and intimidation by dogs. Authorising detainees to be kept in "stress positions" including standing, for periods of up to four hours, Mr Rumsfeld scribbed at the bottom of the page, "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours? DR."

The release of the documents failed to allay the concerns of Democrats on Capitol Hill. The White House had provided only a "a small subset" of the relevant documents, Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, declared, saying: "Much more remains held back and hidden away from public view".

The documents, for instance, shed no light on the question that has haunted the administration since the establishment in autumn 2001 of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba - whether the administration gave a tacit green light to torture to extract information.

Early last year, the commander at Guantanamo Bay was sent to Baghdad with the mission of making interrogations of suspected Iraqi insurgents at Abu Ghraib more "productive". Moreover some prominent US lawyers, as well as government officials, have argued that in cases where the information obtained could avert a planned attack, torture was justifiable. Others contend that this "anything goes" approach contributed to what happened at Abu Ghraib. Nor does the new material make clear whether the official policy, as it evolved, applied to the CIA.

As the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted in May, it emerged that senior al- Qa'ida figures have been threatened with shooting or drowning under secret rules approved by the agency and the Justice Department.

Some of the methods used are so harsh, counter-terrorism officials told The New York Times last month, that the FBI has instructed its agents to steer clear.

Whether or not the latest disclosures put an end to the controversy, the damage to Mr Bush may be lasting. A president who has touted his moral values now risks seeing these values discredited.

* British soldiers accused of mistreating Iraqi civilians could face public courts martial in Iraq, Ministry of Defence officials said yesterday.

Martin Howard, the director general of operational policy at the MoD, said: "The courts martial would ideally be done near the scene of the crime."

METHODS SANCTIONED BY PENTAGON

Hooding

Forcing detainees to adopt 'stress positions' for up to four hours

Removal of clothing

Inducing stress by using dogs

Forced shaving of detainees

20-hour interrogations

Isolation for up to 30 days

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