By TIM GOLDEN, New York Times, Published: May 20, 2006
UNITED NATIONS, May 19 — An important United Nations panel roundly criticized the United States on Friday for its treatment of terror suspects, and called for shutting down the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay.
The panel's criticism came as military officials at Guantánamo disclosed the most serious disturbances by prisoners there since the camp opened, and reported new suicide attempts that left two detainees hospitalized and unconscious after overdosing on antianxiety medications they apparently had hoarded.
The disturbances, which took place on Thursday, included a violent attack on guards that was put down by antiriot soldiers firing shotgun blasts and pepper spray, and an episode involving two other groups of detainees who tore apart their quarters and attacked guards in a showcase unit for the camp's most compliant inmates.
Military officials said the prisoners' actions were apparently aimed at raising political pressure on the Bush administration over its detention policy. That pressure was also ratcheted up by the report issued in Geneva by the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
After a lengthy review of United States policies, the committee dismissed several basic legal arguments the Bush administration had offered to justify such practices as the incommunicado detention of prisoners overseas and the secret transfer or "rendition" of suspects for interrogation by other governments.
The panel, which monitors compliance with the Convention Against Torture, the main international treaty that bans such conduct, also concluded that the Central Intelligence Agency's widely reported practice of holding detainees in secret prisons abroad constitutes a clear violation of the convention.
The United States "should investigate and disclose the existence of any such facilities and the authority under which they have been established," the committee said in its 11-page preliminary report, which was issued in Geneva. It also called on the Bush administration to "publicly condemn any policy of secret detention."
The findings of the committee are not legally binding. But they are likely to be more influential than previous international reviews, in part because the Bush administration clearly took the process seriously, sending a delegation of more than two dozen officials to Geneva earlier this month to present its legal case.
On Friday, some of those administration officials responded to the report by defending the United States' treatment of terror suspects, and criticizing the committee's evaluation as flawed and superficial.
"I think the committee was guided more by popular concerns than by a strict reading of the convention itself, the State Department legal adviser who led the delegation, John B. Bellinger III, said in an interview from Washington.
"It obviously causes us to question whether our extensive presentation was worth it," Mr. Bellinger said.
"Unfortunately, I think the committee really had essentially written its report" beforehand, he said.
The report was delivered as part of the committee's periodic review of actions by signers of the torture convention, which the United States ratified in 1994 The report that the Bush administration delivered to the panel had been due since November 2001.
The committee's report "welcomed" and "noted with satisfaction" several steps by the United States, including the administration's formal statement that all United States officials are prohibited from engaging in torture at all times and in all places.
But the panel, which is made up of 10 independent human rights experts from around the world, was hardly generous in its praise.
It took a broad swipe at the administration's argument that some of its policies — such as the indefinite detention of prisoners without charge at Guantánamo — were defensible under laws of armed conflict.
It called on the United States to immediately end its practice of refusing to register some of the so-called high-value terror suspects it holds overseas or make them accessible to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Bush administration, the panel wrote, "should ensure that no one is detained in any secret detention facility under its de facto effective control."
The committee urged the United States to make sure that its interrogation methods do not violate the convention, and it specifically called for an end to such techniques as sexual humiliation, using dogs to induce fear and "water-boarding," a form of simulated drowning that reportedly has been used by the C.I.A.
In their presentations to the committee earlier this month, Bush administration officials insisted that although abuses have taken place, those who committed them have consistently been punished.
The committee also recommended that the United States enact a federal criminal law against torture to supplement the prohibitions that are now in place. It also insisted that United States officials "should investigate, prosecute and punish" American citizens who are guilty of torturing people overseas.
"None of this is binding," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. "The U.S. can just reject the judgment. But this is the judgment of the authoritative body of experts for interpreting the convention."
He called the panel's conclusions "a complete repudiation of virtually every legal theory that the Bush administration has offered for its controversial detention and interrogation policies."
The committee's appeal for the closing down of the detention center at Guantánamo is only the latest in a recent series. The senior Pentagon official in charge of detainee affairs, Charles D. Stimson, indicated that the administration was no more persuaded by the Committee Against Torture's urgings than it had been by others.
"That is one body's opinion," Mr. Stimson, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, said in an interview.
In recent remarks, President Bush and other officials have suggested that they would readily do away with the Guantánamo center if they had a better alternative.
Meanwhile, the nearly 500 detainees still being held at Guantánamo appear to be showing a growing determination to try to increase pressure on their captors.
The suicide attempts that took place Thursday came four months after military officials managed to break a wave of detainee hunger strikes by force-feeding those who persisted while they were strapped into uncomfortable "restraint chairs" for hours at a time.
The attacks, however, were a notable departure after months in which Guantánamo commanders had said they were gaining greater compliance from the detainees by improving their living conditions.
"This was probably the most violent outbreak here," the new commander of the detention camp, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., said at a news conference on Friday. "This is a way to bring attention to their detention."
At a briefing for reporters that was unusual for its candor and detail, Admiral Harris said the disturbances began Thursday morning when a prisoner was discovered unconscious after missing the morning prayer and was found to have ingested "a large quantity" of anti-anxiety drugs that had ap
parently been hoarded for some time by various detainees.
In the early afternoon, guards searching the detainees' cells discovered a cache of drugs hidden in the toilet of another detainee. Minutes after that, a second prisoner was found in his cell, Admiral Harris said, "frothing at the mouth."
At about 6:30 p.m. Thursday, military officials said, guards searching for more contraband noticed a detainee who appeared to be preparing to hang himself from the ceiling with sheets in the showcase, medium-security wing where detainees live together in dormitories.
But rather than another suicide, the guards were set upon by detainees who had slickened the floor with urine, soapy water and feces. After the prisoners hit guards with blades from ceiling fans, pieces of metal and other improvised weapons, a riot-control unit was sent in with batons and shields.
The military police officer in charge of Guantánamo's detention operations, Col. Michael Bumgarner, told reporters that the detainees kept fighting, even jumping off beds onto the guards. "Frankly, we were losing," he said.
At that point, Colonel Bumgarner said, guards shot five rounds of "non-lethal" pellets from a 12-gauge shotgun, and another round from an M-203 rubber crowd-control grenade.
Rioting then broke out in two other blocks of Camp 4, as detainees demolished their quarters to make weapons to attack the guards. It was an hour, Colonel Bumgarner said, before the disturbances were entirely brought under control.
Riot at Guantanamo as torture watchdog calls for its closure
From James Bone in New York, Times online UK
THE largest prisoner uprising yet at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre was reported by the US military yesterday as the UN watchdog on torture called for the camp to be shut down.The revolt took place when ten terror suspects clashed with ten guards trying to prevent a detainee from hanging himself in a communal living space in a medium security section of the camp on Thursday.
The camp commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, said that the prisoner was only pretending to hang himself to lure the guards into the room. “The detainees had slickened the floor of their block with faeces, urine and soapy water in an attempt to trick the guards,” he said.
“They then assaulted the guards with broken light fixtures, fan blades and bits of metal.”
The guards used pepper spray and blasted the detainees with several shots from a shotgun that fired rubber balls during the five-minute fight. No guards were hurt, but six inmates were treated for “minor injuries”, he said.
Earlier in the day, two detainees in another part of the prison had attempted suicide by swallowing prescription medicine they had been hoarding, the US military reported. In all, there have been 39 suicide attempts at Guantanamo since it opened in January 2002 — including at least 12 by Juma’a Mohammed al-Dossary, a 32-year-old from Bahrain.
News of the rebellion broke as a UN panel on torture delivered a stinging first review of US policy since Washington began its War on Terror.
The UN Committee Against Torture called on the US to close Guantanamo and any secret prisons it operates abroad. It declared the indefinite detention of suspects without charge to be a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.
“The State party should cease to detain any person at Guantanamo Bay and close this detention facility, permit access by the detainees to judicial process or release them as soon as possible,” the committee said.
The ten-member UN body called on the US to “ensure that no one is detained in any secret detention facility under its de facto effective control”.
It also urged the Bush Administration to “rescind any interrogation technique” that constituted torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, citing sexual humiliation, the use of dogs, “short shackling” suspects to hooks in the floor, and a form of mock drowning known as “water-boarding”.
The panel has no legal power to enforce its demands. But its report adds to a growing chorus of calls — including from Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General — for Washington to close the camp.
The criticism has put the US on the defensive over its human rights record. This month Washington did not seek a seat on the new UN human rights council, which activists attributed to fear that it would not have been elected.