In close to half the deaths surveyed in a new report by Human Rights First, the cause of death remains officially undetermined or unannounced. Overall, eight people in U.S. custody were tortured to death.
The report, entitled "Command's Responsibility". says that of the 34 homicide cases so far identified by the military, investigators recommended criminal charges in fewer than two thirds, and charges were actually brought (based on decisions made by command) in less than half.
While the CIA has been implicated in several deaths, no CIA agent has faced a criminal charge, the report says, adding, "Among the worst cases -- detainees tortured to death - only half have resulted in punishment and the harshest sentence for anyone involved in a torture-related death has been five months in jail."
Charging that there is an "accountability gap", HRF says closing it will require "a zero-tolerance approach to commanders who fail to take steps to provide clear guidance, and who allow unlawful conduct to persist on their watch."
The report recommends that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, "move immediately to fully implement the ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (known as the McCain Amendment) passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. Congress and signed into law on December 30, 2005".
It also demands that "the President, the U.S. military, and relevant intelligence agencies should take immediate steps to make clear that all acts of torture and abuse are taken seriously - not from the moment a crime becomes public, but from the moment the United States sends troops and agents into the field".
Congress, the report suggests, "should at long last establish an independent, bipartisan commission to review the scope of U.S. detention and interrogation operations worldwide in the 'war on terror'. Such a commission could investigate and identify the systemic causes of failures that lead to torture, abuse, and wrongful death, and chart a detailed and specific path going forward to make sure those mistakes never happen again. The proposal for a commission has been endorsed by a wide range of distinguished Americans from Republican and Democratic members of Congress to former presidents to leaders in the U.S. military. Human Rights First urges Congress to act without further delay."
Deborah Pearlstein, Director of HRF's U.S. Law and Security Program, said the Pentagon's detention policies have repeatedly been criticized by military lawyers and health officials, but their objections have largely been ignored.
Most recently, it was revealed that one of the Pentagon's top civilian lawyers repeatedly challenged the Bush administration's policy on the coercive interrogation of terror suspects, arguing that such practices violated the law, verged on torture and could ultimately expose senior officials to prosecution.
Mora's campaign underscores how contrary views were often brushed aside in administration debates on the subject.
"Even if one wanted to authorize the U.S. military to conduct coercive interrogations, as was the case in Guanta'namo, how could one do so without profoundly altering its core values and character?" Mr. Mora asked the Pentagon's chief lawyer, William J. Haynes II, in a 22-page memorandum.
The Pentagon has declined to comment on specific assertions in Mr. Mora's memorandum.
"Detainee operations and interrogation policies have been scrutinized under a microscope, from all different angles," a spokesperson said. "It was found that it was not a Department of Defense policy to encourage or condone torture."
The HRF report notes that "It is difficult to assess the systemic adequacy of punishment when so few have been punished, and when the deliberations of juries and commanders are largely unknown. Nonetheless, two patterns clearly emerge and are documented in Command's Responsibility: (1) because of investigative and evidentiary failures, accountability for wrongdoing has been limited at best, and almost non-existent for command; and (2) commanders have played a key role in undermining chances for full accountability."
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