U.S. War Prisons Legal Vacuum for 14,000

By PATRICK QUINN
The Associated Press
Sunday, September 17, 2006; 11:46 AM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In the few short years since the first shackled Afghan shuffled off to Guantanamo, the U.S. military has created a global network of overseas prisons, its islands of high security keeping 14,000 detainees beyond the reach of established law.

Disclosures of torture and long-term arbitrary detentions have won rebuke from leading voices including the U.N. secretary-general and the U.S. Supreme Court. But the bitterest words come from inside the system, the size of several major U.S. penitentiaries.

"It was hard to believe I'd get out," Baghdad shopkeeper Amjad Qassim al-Aliyawi told The Associated Press after his release _ without charge _ last month. "I lived with the Americans for one year and eight months as if I was living in hell."

Captured on battlefields, pulled from beds at midnight, grabbed off streets as suspected insurgents, tens of thousands now have passed through U.S. detention, the vast majority in Iraq.

Many say they were caught up in U.S. military sweeps, often interrogated around the clock, then released months or years later without apology, compensation or any word on why they were taken. Seventy to 90 percent of the Iraq detentions in 2003 were "mistakes," U.S. officers once told the international Red Cross.

Defenders of the system, which has only grown since soldiers' photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib shocked the world, say it's an unfortunate necessity in the battles to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, and to keep suspected terrorists out of action.

Every U.S. detainee in Iraq "is detained because he poses a security threat to the government of Iraq, the people of Iraq or coalition forces," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, a spokesman for U.S.-led military detainee operations in Iraq.

But dozens of ex-detainees, government ministers, lawmakers, human rights activists, lawyers and scholars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the United States said the detention system often is unjust and hurts the war on terror by inflaming anti-Americanism in Iraq and elsewhere.

Building for the Long Term

Reports of extreme physical and mental abuse, symbolized by the notorious Abu Ghraib prison photos of 2004, have abated as the Pentagon has rejected torture-like treatment of the inmates. Most recently, on Sept. 6, the Pentagon issued a new interrogation manual banning forced nakedness, hooding, stress positions and other abusive techniques.

The same day, President Bush said the CIA's secret outposts in the prison network had been emptied, and 14 terror suspects from them sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to face trial in military tribunals. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the tribunal system, however, and the White House and Congress are now wrestling over the legal structure of such trials.

Living conditions for detainees may be improving as well. The U.S. military cites the toilets of Bagram, Afghanistan: In a cavernous old building at that air base, hundreds of detainees in their communal cages now have indoor plumbing and privacy screens, instead of exposed chamber pots.


CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2006 The Associated Press