Tue, Mar 09, 2004 - Page 5 News List

US rebuked on Afghan detentions

HARMFUL ACTIONS Human Rights Watch said the US has violated international law and damaged its own image with its use of excessive force and interrogation tactics

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KABUL

A human-rights group on Sunday accused US forces in Afghanistan of detaining at least 1,000 Afghans and other people over the past two years in "a climate of almost total impunity" that it contends violates international human-rights law. A spokesman for the US military in Afghanistan disputed the findings.

In a 60-page report issued on Sunday, the group, Human Rights Watch, also called on the US military to release the results of investigations into the deaths of three Afghans in US custody in 2002 and last year. Initial military medical investigators declared two of the deaths homicides.

The report also said it had received "numerous reports" of US forces relying on faulty intelligence or using "excessive or indiscriminate force" that resulted in avoidable civilian deaths and the detention of innocent people. It contended that the US was employing interrogation techniques, like shackling prisoners, stripping them naked or depriving them of sleep, that the State Department had condemned as torture in countries like Libya, North Korea and Iran.

"There is little doubt that US policies on the detention of terrorism suspects both in Afghanistan and elsewhere have harmed public opinion of the United States around the world," the report said. "This course of action is shortsighted and damaging to the rule of law, not only in Afghanistan but across the world."

Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, said US forces were acting properly. He said the procedures used in the main US detention facility at Bagram Air Base just north of Kabul had been changed.

"We are in complete compliance with the laws of combat," he said.

Much of the report focused on the treatment of detainees in Bagram and other facilities across the country. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the only outside group allowed to visit the facilities and to carry messages between detainees and their families. For the past two years, the US military has refused to release information about the number of detainees it is holding, their nationalities or their names.

The report said detainees were in a legal limbo in which they could be held in indefinite secret detention, not formally charged and barred from contact with lawyers and journalists. It said the detainees in Afghanistan, no matter what their rank or role, had been treated as "unlawful combatants" who had far fewer legal rights than prisoners of war.

"They are held at the apparent whim of US authorities, in some cases for more than a year," the report said. "The general lack of due process with the US detention system violates both international humanitarian law and basic standard of human rights law."

Hilferty said the report did not take into account the fact that combat continues in Afghanistan and that using law enforcement methods was inappropriate.

"We are engaged in combat operations," Hilferty said. "It's a war."

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