Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 9 News List

New rules for the old pain game

Human rights groups and experts say that the US is using `torture lite' in the war on terror, a form of coercion borrowed from the Israelis

By Dan Williams  /  REUTERS , JERUSALEM

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

Rock music at full blast and the smothering darkness of a hood are sometimes enough to break a will already frayed by lack of sleep. If not, the subject can be slapped and shaken senseless, just short of permanent injury.

Honed against Arab suspects in Israel and decried widely as "torture lite," such interrogation methods are now a prevalent part of the US-led war on terror, human rights groups say.

Yet many experts defend them as a last resort in a race to stop suicide attacks by al-Qaeda, whose diffuse ranks have been notoriously hard for Western intelligence agencies to penetrate.

"Faced with terrorism, every democracy will resort to torture if it thinks this will prevent attacks against its civilians. The issue is whether such methods are used with deniability or accountability," said Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard University law professor.

Washington denies its forces use torture, despite increasing Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports of abuse in US military stockades in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

British troops in the Gulf have been similarly accused.

The most recurrent complaints include deprivation of sleep or food, and being forced to sit for hours shackled and hooded in a contorted position. Many suspects also say their captors beat and shook them, enough to jar and bruise but not to maim.

These methods -- which US officials describe as "stress and duress" rather than torture -- recall the "moderate physical pressure" Israel's Shin Bet security service uses on detainees believed to be withholding information about impending attacks.

According to Israeli security sources, the Shin Bet has shared interrogation expertise with US counterparts since the mid-1990s amid fears of new Islamist violence on US soil.

"The Americans were not equipped for cracking this brand of fanaticism," a senior Israeli source said. "We helped."

Security officials do not give details of interrogations in the war on terror, making it impossible to gauge their efficacy.

Dershowitz, who has written extensively on legal challenges facing counter-terrorism agencies, said judicial scrutiny of US methods is hobbled by the foreign location of many interrogation centers.

For even greater discretion, he said, US forces transfer some detainees to Third World client states where "torture heavy" is the norm. Amnesty has also reported such "outsourcing" of interrogations.

Coercion clearly played a part in at least one US coup: the capture of Saddam Hussein last December after the deposed Iraqi dictator's whereabouts were extracted from an informant.

"This guy was in interrogation. He wasn't willingly giving stuff up," one US officer told the Washington Post.

A source who oversaw Shin Bet interrogations for four years said that out of dozens of suspects subjected then to "moderate physical pressure," only one did not divulge details that led directly to the prevention of a suicide bombing or gun attack.

"He was either innocent or too tough," the source said.

According to one Arab affairs expert, such state-sanctioned tactics risk deepening the enmity they purport to tackle.

"They [US forces and their allies] are only making more and more people disbelieve in democracy and the so-called international standards of human rights," said Azzam al-Tamimi of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London.

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