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U.N. Report Alleges U.S. Rights Violations in Iraq

June 05, 2004|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N.'s top human rights official said Friday that U.S.-led forces had committed serious human rights violations in Iraq since the occupation began and that incidents at Abu Ghraib prison could be considered war crimes.

While crediting the United States for ending the "shocking and systematic" human rights abuses that occurred during Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, the acting high commissioner for human rights, Bertrand Ramcharan, said occupation forces had mistreated many ordinary Iraqis, and he called for an ombudsman to monitor the troops' behavior.

In a 45-page report released in Geneva, Ramcharan noted the complexity of Iraq's situation, marked by a murky political transition, acts of terrorism and civilians getting caught up in military operations to contain insurgent attacks.

But there were "serious violations of human rights" under the Coalition Provisional Authority, he said, with many Iraqis detained "without anyone knowing how many, for what reasons, and how they were being treated."

The report cited interviews by U.N. employees and foreign aid groups with Iraqis who spoke of arbitrary arrests, detention and beatings as ongoing since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the former human rights chief who served as the U.N.'s special envoy to Iraq last year, reported allegations of torture and ill treatment of prisoners to the American administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, last summer. Ramcharan became the acting human rights chief when Vieira de Mello was killed in the bombing of the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters in August.

A longtime U.N. official, Ramcharan commissioned an investigation in April because he was concerned that Iraq had been unmonitored since Hussein's regime fell. He urged that a monitoring system be set up immediately that would involve regular inspections of all detention facilities in the country.

Referring to the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody at Abu Ghraib, Ramcharan said that "willful killing, torture or ill treatment" of detainees represented a grave breach of international law. Such actions, he added, "might be designated as war crimes by a competent tribunal."

One U.S. soldier has pleaded guilty in connection with the incidents and has been sentenced to a year in prison. But American personnel are unlikely to be tried before an international tribunal because the U.S. does not recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court.

The U.N. report's findings are consistent with recent investigations by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The Red Cross, Amnesty International and the U.N. presented their concerns about poor treatment of detainees to U.S. officials in June and July last year.

Amnesty spokesman Alistair Hodgett said coalition officials with whom the groups had met did not dispute the accuracy of the accounts but said they would seek further information and testimony.

"What did not happen were changes in treatment and handling of detainees," Hodgett said. "We had almost a whole year of ill treatment since the time concerns were first voiced to the coalition. One of the key protections against torture is allowing unfettered access to detention facilities."

But one man interviewed in the report, Saddam Abood Rawi, 29, said that even Red Cross visits did not result in a halt to the abuse he suffered at Abu Ghraib.

"At the time of a Red Cross visit to Abu Ghraib prison in January 2004, he was warned that if he said anything to the Red Cross visitor that the prison guards would not like, he would never live to regret it," the report said.

As a result, he did not tell the Red Cross investigator of abuses he later said he had experienced, such as the pulling of two of his teeth, beatings and threats of rape.

U.S. and British officials were allowed to comment on Ramcharan's report before it was released, but his spokesman, Jose Diaz, said they did not pressure the agency to make changes.

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