UNDER PRESSURE from the Supreme Court and many foreign governments, the Bush administration at last has begun to take steps toward providing a review process for the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. But it has yet to address the less publicized but possibly more serious problems surrounding its detention of foreign nationals elsewhere in the world. Under the guise of the war on terrorism, the U.S. military and CIA are holding hundreds, if not thousands, of suspects in Iraq, Afghanistan and possibly other locations under conditions of extraordinary secrecy and without any formal legal process. Many of the detentions are a necessary and normal part of ongoing military operations, and many of those detained are terrorists or others who might accurately be described as "illegal combatants." Nevertheless, as a new report by Human Rights Watch on Afghanistan has documented, the Bush administration's practice of refusing to follow the Geneva Conventions or any other rule of law has led to abuses that are an affront to fundamental American values.
The 60-page report on U.S. practices in Afghanistan during the past two years details questionable or possibly criminal behavior by American personnel, including the use of excessive force during arrests and systematic mistreatment of some detainees. It shows that U.S. interrogators have used practices, such as prolonged shackling and sleep deprivation, that the State Department's annual human rights report describes as torture when they are used by other countries. Perhaps most disturbing, it documents how numerous Afghan civilians have been held for periods of up to a year or more without charge, "virtually incommunicado without any legal basis for challenging their detention or seeking their release."
U.S. authorities have never disclosed how many prisoners are being held or where, nor have they permitted visits by family members or lawyers to those detained. No charges have been brought against any of the prisoners. "Simply put," the report concludes, "the United States is acting outside the rule of law."
The Pentagon also appears to be avoiding accountability for those abuses that have come to light. Of particular concern are the unexplained deaths of three detainees in U.S. custody, including two men whose deaths at Bagram Air Base in December 2002 were ruled homicides by medical investigators. When the cases were disclosed through a leak to the New York Times more than a year ago, U.S. spokesmen said an investigation was underway. But no results of the probe have been announced. The silence is shameful: It could be taken to suggest that suspects can be killed in U.S. custody with impunity.
The Bush administration should be acting aggressively to demonstrate, both to Americans and Afghans, that this is not the case. It should also take steps to regularize its handling of detainees abroad, disclose where they are, and ensure that they are being treated humanely and in accord with the Geneva Conventions. Though it must move forcefully against terrorists or remnants of the Taliban, the United States must also demonstrate that it is possible to wage this war while respecting basic standards of justice and human rights. For now, its actions in Afghanistan are sending the world a different message.