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Harrowing prison abuse memo prompts further probe

Text by Nandita VIJ

Latest update : 2009-08-26

The United States' attorney general, Eric Holder, has named John Durham as special prosecutor to probe CIA prisoner abuse cases after the release of a disturbing report on torture methods used to interrogate key terror suspects.

A CIA agent pinches an artery in a detainee's neck till the terror suspect passes out then shakes him awake to repeat the action again. The gruesome scenario is just one of the torture cases documented in a new prison abuse report which was made public by the US Department of Justice earlier this week.
The memo, made by a CIA inspector general in December 2004 but long kept under wraps, was released earlier this week under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Amnesty International USA and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Soon after reading this heavily-censored and controversial report, the United States' attorney general, Eric Holder, appointed attorney John Durham as special prosecutor  to investigate whether US laws were violated to interrogate key terror suspects detained in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2009 attacks.
"I fully realise that my decision to commence this preliminary review will be controversial. As attorney general, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law. In this case, given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take," Holder said after reading the torture memo.
Durham is already investigating the alleged destruction of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) videotapes of detainee interrogations.
'Walling and mock executions'
Electric drills, water dousing, slamming a detainee’s head against the wall (walling), insult slaps, threats to harm close family members, use of a stiff brush to scrub a detainee's skin raw were some of the torture means allegedly used by CIA interrogators, according to the document.
One of the cases also included strangulation to the point where detainees lost consciousness and mock executions.
“The CIA inspector-general’s report provides compelling official confirmation that the CIA committed serious crimes. A full criminal investigation into these crimes, and who authorised them, is absolutely necessary,” Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counter-terrorism Program director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement published on the website of the human rights watchdog. "A full criminal investigation into these crimes, and who authorised them, is absolutely necessary," Mariner said.
When the CIA first reported the findings to the Justice Department during the Bush era, prosecutors decided none of the cases required prosecutions.
However, the US Justice Department’s ethics watchdog under the Obama administration has recommended conducting a review of close to a dozen prison abuse cases, which could expose several CIA agents and contractors to prosecution.
The latest steps are a part of the Obama’s administrations efforts to reverse anti-terror measures pursued under the Bush regime and set up new legal guidelines for interrogating, detaining and trying terror suspects after the planned closure of Guantanamo Bay.
US President Barack Obama also set up a new team of elite interrogators to question suspects. The team will be based at the FBI headquarters rather than the CIA and will be overseen by the National Security Council, which answers directly to the White House.
The Obama administration has pledged that all future interrogations will abide by the strict rules of the army’s field manual.
'Not enough'
President Obama has often said he wants “to look forward and not backward" but analysts warn the latest revelations could lead to long and arduous process, before the Obama administration can turn the page.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Professor Michael Cox, associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House, said: “I suspect an off and on going process. It doesn’t really bring things to an end…once you open up this issue, you’ll find yourself facing many more questions".
Critics say the US Justice Department’s probe is not wide enough. They call for an in-depth investigation into cases of torture and those who authorised it.
David Cole, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Centre, told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview: "to investigate a  few ‘bad apples’ without investigating those who committed the 'original sin' — namely authorising the CIA to use cruel, brutal and torturous tactics in the first place — is to substitute scapegoating for true accountability. A comprehensive investigation is needed, not limited to interrogators, but all the way up the chain of command who personally approved torture."  
Francis Perris, spokesman for Amnesty International France, ran a similar line: "It is very normal for any country or president to look forward, but this includes a full accountability process for past abuses.”
According to Perrin, “if some top officials designed and implemented certain of these tortures polices, violating US and international law, the government cannot say that it was the past and it is over.”
Former US vice-president Dick Cheney, meanwhile, criticised Obama's methods in handling national security after the appointment of the special prosecutor.
Cheney defended the policies of the Bush administration, saying the intelligence obtained from harsh interrogation techniques had saved lives and averted future attacks.
However, if Durham’s initial investigations reveal that US laws were broken, it remains unclear whether Holder will wish to go ahead with prosecutions.
US President Barack Obama announced in April that CIA interrogators who acted according to legal guidelines drawn up under the Bush administration would not face prosecution.
The US leader, however, had left the door open for prosecution of officials who laid the legal groundwork for harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects during the Bush administration.


Date created : 2009-08-26