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Prison Abuse Seen as Hurting U.S. Credibility

Foreign governments have cited Abu Ghraib in defending their civil liberties violations, rights group says.

January 14, 2005|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Responding to U.S. complaints that they violated human rights, foreign governments have cited U.S. mistreatment of Iraqi detainees, a development that indicates American credibility has been undermined by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

To restore U.S. moral authority, the group called for the appointment of an independent special prosecutor to investigate mistreatment of those held by the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, the American base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other locations officials have not disclosed.

Both Human Rights Watch, in its annual world report, and Amnesty International cite growing evidence that U.S. diplomats are encountering resistance from some foreign governments when they attempt to protest curtailment of civil liberties or abuse of prisoners.

According to the two rights groups, Egypt, Malaysia, China, Libya, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan and the Philippines have pointed to the United States' policies in its "war on terrorism" and treatment of detainees to defend their own behavior.

All have been singled out by the U.S. year after year for human rights and civil liberties violations. Although condemning those practices, Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch in Washington said the prison scandal provided foreign governments with "a ready-made and often effective counter to U.S. pressure to clean up their act."

A senior Bush administration official said this week that he was not aware of what the rights groups called a pattern of resistance. And State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Thursday called the charges an "old domestic political game about the standards."

Many nations criticized by the United States have previously countered by citing American incarceration rates, racism, executions and other issues.

Loren W. Craner, who was the State Department's assistant secretary for human rights issues until last summer, said that only a few pariah governments had equated the U.S. human rights record with their own.

"I had one diplomat from a foreign country try to use those arguments with me the whole time I was there," Craner said. "I threw it back in his face. I said, 'You know, unlike my rulers, your rulers have been torturing people for decades.' Frankly, they don't try it if they know they're going to get a tough reception."

But U.S. shortcomings have been exploited by foreign diplomats and leaders, the human rights groups said. Last month, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani said that Westerners, especially Americans, could not comment on human rights in light of the "Guantanamo hell" and other prison policies.

In another instance, a high-ranking Sudanese official rebuffed U.S. criticism in a conversation with an Amnesty International representative.

"You Americans committed terrible crimes at Abu Ghraib," the Sudanese official said, according to Amnesty International. "You have ignored international law at Guantanamo Bay. Who is your government to tell mine what to do?"

Moreover, the U.S. policies have put some American diplomats on the defensive, the rights groups said.

When asked to protest the detention policies of Malaysia and Uganda, "State Department officials demurred, explaining, in the words of one, 'With what we are doing in Guantanamo, we're on thin ice to push this,' " Human Rights Watch reported.

"It does shut American diplomats up, and it does help them mobilize a kind of nationalistic response in their countries against U.S. pressure for democracy," Malinowski said.

The Egyptian government has defended its decision to renew its repressive "emergency law" by noting U.S. anti-terrorism legislation. Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who has been lauded by the Bush administration for his democracy activism, has complained to U.S. officials that American behavior "is hurting our cause."

Craner, the former State Department official, contends that the U.S. diplomats referred to in the Human Rights Watch report represent isolated cases of envoys who have long been reluctant to pressure foreign governments, "and they have found a new excuse."

Arguing for appointment of a special prosecutor, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch Executive, said that the Justice and Defense departments should not be permitted to investigate themselves. He said special prosecutors had been named to probe lesser charges than torture.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said Thursday that the government had undertaken a dozen investigations and was prosecuting wrongdoers, so no outside prosecutor was needed.

The administration argues that the Uniform Code of Military Justice covers such cases.

"To suggest that the UCMJ is somehow less than an acceptable legal standard for taking action is insulting, frankly," the senior administration official said, adding that the United States had been "public and persistent" and that other countries would "do well" to follow suit.

Boucher would not comment on detainee abuse prosecutions but said that the administration had been very clear that "we don't condone torture of prisoners, we don't condone abuse of prisoners, and that where we find it we will expose it and we will punish it, even if it takes place at U.S. hands."

In September, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) called for an independent panel, like the Sept. 11 commission, to investigate Abu Ghraib abuses, but the proposal has not won broad support.

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