By Colum Lynch and Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 19, 2006 5:48 PM
A U.N. anti-torture panel today issued a rebuke of Bush administration counter-terrorism policies today, calling for the closing of the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba and a halt to the transfer of suspected terrorists to countries where they may face torture.
The committee, charged with monitoring the 1984 Convention Against Torture that the United States has ratified, also stated that the imprisonment of suspects in secret detention facilities constitutes a clear violation of the treaty.
The 11-page report released today marked the culmination of the most exhaustive international public review of U.S. anti-terror tactics since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
U.S. officials quickly branded the report unfair, unrealistic and, in some respects, inaccurate.
State Department legal advisor John Bellinger defended the U.S. practice of holding suspected terrorists without filing charges.
"In any kind of a war, you hold people indefinitely until the end of the conflict without charge," he said.
Bellinger also said the committee's call to close the Guantanamo facility is impractical.
"The committee report here suggests that we need to close Guantanamo but we can't return anybody to a country with a bad human rights record," he told reporters at a briefing in Washington. "Well, most of the people in Guantanamo came from countries with bad human rights records, so that's a very nice recommendation, but not terribly practical."
If these prisoners can't be returned to their home countries, "then our societies will end up being stuck with them," Bellinger said.
The U.N. committee, made up of nine experts, urged the Bush administration to establish a federal law criminalizing torture and to eliminate some of its most controversial interrogation techniques, including sexual humiliation, the use of dogs to induce fear and "water boarding," a practice that involves simulating the sensation of near-drowning.
Bellinger said that while the United States has confirmed "very serious incidents of abuse" of prisoners several years ago, the U.N. committee ignored the progress that U.S. officials have made in curbing such incidents.
"We've all seen Abu Ghraib. There have been other -- numerous other allegations," Bellinger said. "There have been other incidents. We have investigated those. We've held people accountable, but . . . clearly our record has improved over the last few years."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said President Bush has "expressed his preference that, in fact, we at some point be able to close down Guantanamo."
The United States had sent a large delegation to Geneva -- 25 to 30 people to answer the U.N. committee's questions. The State Department submitted a 184-page defense of its treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism.
In the U.N. report, described as an "advance unedited version," the committee said it welcomed the U.S. commitment that officials from all U.S. government agencies, including contractors, "are prohibited from engaging in torture at all times and in all places." It also welcomed the U.S. pledge not to transfer terror suspects to countries where they would "more likely than not" endure torture.
But the committee expressed skepticism about the U.S. commitment to comply with such pledges, citing concern about the adequacy of a U.S. policy to obtain "diplomatic assurances" against torture from countries with poor rights records.
It called on the U.S. to "cease" the transfer of "suspects, in particular by its intelligence agencies, to states where they face the real risk of torture."
The panel challenged a U.S. assertion that some elements of the anti-torture convention are not applicable in times of war. It wrote that the United States should ensure that the convention "applies at all times, whether in peace, war or armed conflict."
State Department lawyer Bellinger said the U.N. committee erred in concluding that detaining prisoners indefinitely without filing charges violates the Convention Against Torture treaty.
"Well, that's just simply legally inaccurate," Bellinger said. "There is nothing in the convention that says anything about holding people indefinitely."
For that reason, he said, the committee acted outside the scope of its mandate in calling for the Guantanamo facility to be shut down.
Snow, at the White House briefing today, said the Guantanamo detainees "get three meals a day "in accordance with Muslim law."
They also get "diet, water, medical care, clothing, shoes, shelter, showers, soap and toilet articles, the opportunity to worship, Korans and prayer mats being handed out to all who need them," Snow said. "They get correspondence materials. They're allowed to send and receive mail. They can receive packages of food and clothing.
"In short, we are according every consideration consistent with not only the law, but the needs of safety and security at Guantanamo to the people who are there."
The U.N. panel also weighed in on American domestic prison policies, citing abuses in U.S. prisons, including inadequately investigated sexual assaults by prisoners on other prisoners, use of electro-shock devices, use of excessive force and "the extremely harsh regime imposed" in so-called super-maximum U.S. prisons.
And it urged the Bush administration to support the International Criminal Court, which the United States has refused to join.