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U.N. panel tells U.S. it must set better example against torture

Published May 6, 2006

GENEVA - The United Nations has told the U.S. that it has to set a better example in combating torture and cannot hide behind intelligence activities in refusing to discuss violations of the global ban on prisoner abuse in the war on terror.

The U.N. Committee Against Torture asked U.S. officials about a series of issues, including Washington's interpretation of the absolute ban on torture and its interrogation methods in prisons such as Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

State Department legal adviser John B. Bellinger III, leading the U.S. delegation Friday in its first appearance before the committee in six years, insisted that the U.S. government felt an "absolute commitment to upholding our national and international obligations to eradicate torture."

The delegation told the committee, the United Nations' watchdog for a 22-year-old treaty forbidding prisoner abuse, that mistakes had occurred in the U.S. treatment of detainees in the war against terror and that 29 detainees in U.S. facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan had died of what appeared to be abuse or other violations of U.S. law.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Stimson said that a total of 120 detainees have died in Iraq and Afghanistan but that none had died at Guantanamo. Most of the deaths resulted from natural causes, battlefield injuries or attacks by other detainees, he said.

In the cases of the 29 deaths from suspected abuse, Stimson said, "these alleged violations were properly investigated and appropriate action taken."

Andreas Mavrommatis, who chaired the session, said the U.S. investigations would be more convincing if they were conducted by an independent judge or lawyer rather than by staff of the Defense Department.

He praised the United States for its "unique contribution" historically to the promotion of human rights around the world but said it had an obligation to be above reproach.

The United States is taking its turn as one of the 141 signatories to the Convention Against Torture in submitting to a periodic review by the committee.

A second session is planned for Monday. Criticism by the U.N. panel brings no penalties beyond international scrutiny.

[Last modified May 6, 2006, 08:10:40]

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