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Amnesty International Alleges Detainee Abuse at Guantanamo Prisons

June 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: The U.S. prison camp at the southeast corner of Cuba has stirred controversy around the world since American soldiers rounded up suspected terrorists in Afghanistan in 2001.

Today there are more than 500 prisoners from some 40 countries. Most are Muslims, and many have been held for years without being charged. The conditions at the prison have come under fire, too. Recently there were allegations that American interrogators desecrated the Quran.

Ten days ago, Amnesty International released its annual human rights report. It branded Guantanamo a “human rights failure” and compared it to Josef Stalin’s forced labor camps in Russia.

IRENE KAHN: Guantanamo has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law.

If Guantanamo evokes images of Soviet repression, ghost detainees, or the incommunicado detention of unregistered prisoners, bring back the practice of disappearances, which you will remember were so popular with Latin American dictators.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Bush administration responded with a barrage of denunciations of the report and its language. The president:

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It’s an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world. When there’s accusations made about certain actions by our people, they’re fully investigated in a transparent way.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The vice president:

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: I was offended by it. For Amnesty International to suggest that somehow the United States is a violator of human rights, I frankly just don’t take them seriously.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The defense secretary:

DONALD RUMSFELD: Most would define a gulag as where the Soviet Union kept millions in forced labor concentration camps, or I suppose some might say where Saddam Hussein mutilated and murdered untold numbers because they held views unacceptable to his regime. To compare the United States and Guantanamo Bay to such atrocities cannot be excused.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: At least ten cases of abuse and mistreatment have been investigated at Guantanamo. Several other cases are pending.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes it from there.

MARGARET WARNER: Joining us to discuss the Amnesty International report and the conditions at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility are: William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

And Neil Livingtstone, CEO of Global Options, an international risk management company that consults for private businesses and the U.S. government on security and terrorism matters. He has closely followed the situation at Guantanamo.

We invited Pentagon officials to send a representative, but they declined. And welcome to you both. Mr. Schulz, what is the basis for your charge that Guantanamo Bay is, in fact, the gulag of our times?

WILLIAM SCHULZ: Well, let me say first this that this is, of course, not an exact analogy. There are differences between the Soviet gulags, differences in size. We don’t expect, we have no reports that there is forced labor at Guantanamo or the other U.S. detention centers or that people are being starved.

But there are similarities. The United States is maintaining an archipelago of prisons, many of them secret prisons in which people are being disappeared. They are being held in incommunicado detention without access to the judicial system.

That is similar to the gulags. They are being held without access to their families; that is similar. And in many cases, they are being mistreated, abused, and even killed. In fact, there have been at least a hundred deaths of detainees, 27 of which have been ruled to be homicides by medical examiners.

Now, at Guantanamo Bay itself, you don’t to rely upon Amnesty International for reports of abuses that have taken place there and of the violation of the Geneva Conventions. In terms of abuses, a Kentucky guardsman, for example, reported detainees whose heads had been slammed into walls.

The FBI agents there at Guantanamo Bay reported their concerns about people held in stress positions for eighteen to twenty-four hours. The Red Cross itself reported on sleep deprivation there.

And we’ve heard reports of female interrogators smearing what they represented as menstrual blood upon the faces of those prisoners, some of the prisoners there, which certainly is inhumane and degrading treatment, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of torture.

And finally, we also know that the United States is clearly in violation of the Geneva Conventions because the conventions require that if a captor does not want to label captives prisoners of war.

Even though they have been taking prison in the course of combat, then that question of the status of the detainees has to be taken to what the conventions call a competent tribunal to determine whether or not they are POW’s or instead, as we claim, enemy combatants. And, in fact, no such competent tribunal has ever ruled on these detainees’ status. So that’s some of the reasons that this charge has been made.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Neil Livingtstone, that’s quite a litany of charges. Respond to the overall thrust of what Mr. Schulz is saying first, that if it isn’t technically a gulag, there are a lot of similarities.

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Well, I think that the hyperbole of calling it a gulag, the overstatement calls into question their whole report. I mean, traditionally we’ve looked at Amnesty International as an organization that took on governments on the left and governments on the right and did so with equal fervor.

In this case, I think this is part of a very calculated effort to take innuendo, unfounded accusations and so on and try to bash the United States. Let me give you one example. The Navy’s inspector general looked at twenty-four thousand interrogations that were conducted by interrogators at Guantanamo and found that there were only five to seven cases of abuse and those were relatively minor.

And so, you know, the idea that we are taking Guantanamo and what goes on there and somehow comparing it to the dungeons of Saddam Hussein or the Soviet gulag, I think casts into doubt many of the findings that are contained in this report.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Schulz, even some liberal columnists have written recently they you really undercut your credibility with the use of that term. In retrospect, was it a mistake?

WILLIAM SCHULZ: Well, let me point something out, Margaret. Amnesty International is truly an international organization. We have members in over 100 countries. This analogy to the gulag came out of Amnesty in London; it was articulated by our secretary general who is a Bangladeshi native.

Now, whether we Americans like it or not, the reality is that not just Guantanamo Bay but the whole system of U.S. detention facilities and the way detainees have been treated by the United States is regarded as analogous to gulags and is regarded as a tremendous atrocious stain on the reputation of the United States.

So I can acknowledge that for us Americans, this may well seem like hyperbole. But by focusing so much on the semantic debate the administration is attempting to continue the cover up of what has been a systematic policy of torture.

And let me say one last thing to my friend Neil. It’s fascinating to me that whenever Amnesty International denounces Cuba, North Korea, or China, my friend Neil and those in the Bush administration often applaud Amnesty International.

Indeed, in the run up to the Iraq War, Secretary Rumsfeld repeatedly quoted Amnesty International on Saddam Hussein’s violations. But now when we criticize the United States, we’re suddenly way off base.

The response of this government to Amnesty’s criticisms is almost exactly the same response that the Chinese give, the Cubans give, and many other governments give whenever we hold up what we try to hold up as one universal gold standard of human rights respect: The same standard for every country.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Livingstone, let me go to two points with you. First of all, Mr. Schulz’s first point, which now has just escaped me so I’ll go to the second one.

Let’s go to the substance of the charges, that people at Guantanamo and certainly at other detention facilities, some of the detention facilities are secret, they are held incommunicado, that Guantanamo — it’s not a secret, but until recently they had no access to lawyers whatsoever and that they were denied the status and therefore the protections, at least legally, of the Geneva Conventions.

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Well, I think — let’s remember why they’re there, first of all. They were part of an enemy that carried out the 9/11 attacks, killed 3,000 Americans, men, women, innocent people. They carried out other terrorist attacks.

They represented an illegal government in Afghanistan. It’s highly questionable. Bill and I can debate for a long time whether they should have any status. They are — and as I’ve said for 20 years, illegal combatants. Terrorists should not have protection under the Geneva Conventions.

MARGARET WARNER: That was the administration’s position, is that right?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Absolutely. And I fully agree with that.

MARGARET WARNER: But what about then his larger point, if you just wait, Mr. Schulz, for a minute, which is that we might, the administration may say legally technically because they are unlawful combatants they’re not like German soldiers in World War II.

But the fact is that the way the rest of the world looks at what the U.S. is doing, they do see it as a gulag, they do see it as a sort of violation of the standards that we’ve always held up the U.S. to embody?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: I’m not sure that the rest of the world in general sees this as some type of indictment of the United States.

I think there are certainly people out there and supporters of anti-American efforts, even supporters of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden who are the same people cheering in the streets that say, you know, This is somehow, our self-defense mechanisms today are somehow illegal unwarranted, wringing of hands.

Let me tell you about Guantanamo. For a lot of these people, they’re having better treatment and care than they had when they were in the field in Afghanistan. They’re getting healthcare for the first time.

And I could go into great detail about some of the procedures that have been performed there on people. They’re getting meals, three meals a day, they’re given — after all, there have been criticisms that somehow that they’ve been abused and that they’re —

MARGARET WARNER: And there are document cases, even in the military.

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: There are very few documented cases. Of the cases on the Quran, for example, the misuse of the Quran, there were found to be perhaps five cases where the Quran was inadvertently for the most part mishandled during an interrogation session.

And in two of those cases were clearly found to be inadvertent. So there might have been three cases out of, you know, several years of effort down there.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Schulz, and we’re unfortunately about out of time. Amnesty International wants some kind of independent outside investigation, is that right?

WILLIAM SCHULZ: Yes. I’m delighted that Neil knows what’s happening at Guantanamo Bay. I wish the Defense Department would allow Amnesty International or if not us because they’re so angry at us then some other independent human rights group to investigate there.

Look how Neil started his answer to your question. He said “These people at Guantanamo are enemy combatants who were enemies of the United States, who have conspired with 9/11, et cetera, et cetera, with al-Qaida.”

That’s exactly what we don’t know whether they are. That’s exactly why they need to be provided with some kind of competent tribunal before which to make their own cases to defend themselves. That’s what they’re not being allowed to do, and that’s what’s a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

MARGARET WARNER: If they are so dangerous, Mr. Livingtstone, after three years, why can’t they — even if the trials aren’t fully public because they’re classified sources and so on, why can’t they have real trials?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Well, Margaret, 234 detainees have already been released. About 67 of those may be back to countries, which were going to try them in their native jurisdictions. But by and large they’ve had tribunals.

There are probably 100 hard-core terrorist there and twelve to seventeen of those already released, by the way, have gone back into the field and we think they are carrying out terrorist activities today.

MARGARET WARNER: Final last question: What about the idea of just having an independent inquiry, a 9/11-style inquiry in which instead of the Pentagon investigating itself — and there have been many investigations — somebody, an outside group of reputable well-known people does it?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Margaret, we’re still at war and we’re still getting intelligence from some of these people. I agree; not all of them. And there’s still some sorting out. We don’t need to do that today. We are at war.

Maybe at some time in the future we can go back and look at the accountability and do so reasonably well. But I think these people still have value and it’s good to keep most of them off the street, quite frankly.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Neil Livingtstone and Bill Schulz, we have to leave it there. Thank you both.