May 5, 2006

US Defends Treatment of Terror Suspects to UN Body

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States on Friday defended its treatment of foreign terrorism suspects held abroad, telling a U.N. committee it backed a ban on torture and stressing there had been "relatively few actual cases of abuse."

John Bellinger, legal adviser at the State Department, said the Bush administration was "absolutely committed to uphold its national and international obligations to eradicate torture."

"There are no exceptions to this prohibition," he said.

Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch this week again accused the United States of mistreating detainees through cruel interrogation methods including "water-boarding" -- a form of mock drowning.

Bellinger, who heads the American delegation to the committee against torture, said allegations of U.S. abuse had become so exaggerated as to be "absurd."

"This committee should not lose sight of the fact that these incidents are not systemic," he told the committee of 10 experts as it began a two-day examination of U.S. compliance with the Convention Against Torture.

It would do a disservice to "focus exclusively on allegations" as "relatively few actual cases of abuse and wrongdoing have occurred in the context of U.S. armed conflict with al Qaeda," he said.

The United States is holding hundreds of al Qaeda and other suspects arrested since the September 11 attacks in 2001, at its prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Bellinger said 30 senior U.S. officials -- an unusually large number for such a review -- would do their best to answer experts' questions fully, but would not comment on intelligence activities.


In its opening session, the U.N. committee grilled the U.S. delegation on whether criminal responsibility for acts of torture has been established in the chain of command, and about suspected "extraordinary renditions" whereby prisoners are transferred to another country where they can face torture.

Bellinger, the State Department's top lawyer, said: "I would like to emphasize that the United States has not transported detainees to countries for purposes of interrogation using torture and will not."

He later told a news briefing: "As a purely legal matter, we think it is crystal clear in reading the terms of the (torture) Convention ... that it does not apply to (detainee) transfers that take place outside of the United States.

"Outside the United States, while it's clear that it doesn't apply as a legal matter, we have, as a policy matter, applied exactly the same standards."

Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) expressed concern at suggestions that moving a foreign detainee from outside U.S. territory to another country was allowable under the torture convention.

"One of the most disturbing comments was the U.S. claim that its obligation not to send somebody where they could be tortured does not apply if an individual is picked up outside U.S. territory," Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch told Reuters after Friday's three-hour session.

ACLU's Jamil Dakwar said: "In all cases that we know of, rendition of terror suspects occurred to countries that have widespread practice of torture, such as Egypt."

In their remarks to the committee, U.S. officials said any suspicious death of a detainee in U.S. custody was investigated and those found responsible held to account.

Charles Stimson, deputy U.S. assistant defense secretary, said that 120 detainees had died under Department of Defense control in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The vast majority were caused by natural causes, injuries sustained on the battlefield or detainee-on-detainee violence," he told the panel at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

In 29 cases where abuse was suspected in a detainee's death in Iraq or Afghanistan, Stimson said an inquiry was conducted and action taken, but offered no further details.

There had not been any deaths in Guantanamo, he added.