The United States continues to torture detainees — some of them imprisoned for the better part of two decades without any charge or trial — in its military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the top United Nations torture official warned on Wednesday.
UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer urged the United States government to end not only torture but also its pervasive policy of impunity for crimes committed by its officials. “In 2014, a Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program publicly acknowledged the systematic use of torture in US custody,” Nils said. The report concluded that dozens of innocent individuals were wrongfully detained at GITMO, that detainees there were subjected to horrific and even deadly torture and abuse, and that the brutality and scope of the program were hidden from the Justice Department and even high-ranking members of the George W. Bush administration, including the president himself.
“To this day, however, the perpetrators and policymakers responsible for years of gruesome abuse have not been brought to justice, and the victims have received no compensation or rehabilitation,” Melzer continued. “By failing to prosecute the crime of torture in CIA custody, the US is in clear violation of the Convention against Torture and is sending a dangerous message of complacency and impunity to officials in the US and around the world.”
Melzer highlighted the case of alleged al-Qaeda militant Ammar al-Baluchi, who was named 153 times in the Senate report and who was tortured for more than three years at secret CIA “black sites” before being transferred to Guantánamo. Melzer cites reports claiming al-Baluchi is still being tortured by his American jailers at GITMO. “Mr. al-Baluchi has been held in isolation at a severely restricted-access facility at Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade,” he said. “In addition to the long-term effects of past torture, noise and vibrations are reportedly still being used against him, resulting in constant sleep deprivation and related physical and mental disorders, for which he allegedly does not receive adequate medical attention.”
Most of the torture techniques approved by the Bush administration — which included the interrupted drowning technique known as “waterboarding,” sleep, sensory and food deprivation, shackling in excruciating ‘stress positions,’ the use of loud music and dogs to torment detainees, slamming into walls, solitary confinement, exposure to extreme heat or cold and sexual humiliation — are illegal under both domestic and international law. In addition to these approved “enhanced interrogation” techniques, US military and intelligence personnel subjected terrorism detainees — many of them innocent men, women and children — to additional abuses, including homicide, rape, imprisonment of relatives as bargaining chips, exposure to sometimes lethally extreme temperatures and brutal beatings.
Melzer strongly reminded the United States that torture is always illegal. “This is one of the most fundamental norms of international law, and its violation is listed among the most serious international crimes, including crimes against humanity and war crimes,” he stressed. “No circumstances, however exceptional and well argued, may be invoked to justify torture. From Nuremberg to the establishment of the UN War Crimes Tribunals, the United States has contributed decisively to the fight against impunity worldwide. I therefore now urge the US to live up to its legacy, to end its policy of impunity and to bring its own perpetrators to justice.”
However, despite admitting to US torture, numerous campaign promises to investigate Bush-era abuses and early executive orders banning torture and (unsuccessfully) closing GITMO, former president Barack Obama attempted to undermine publication of the Senate report. More importantly, not only did he fail to prosecute any of the Bush torturers, his administration actively shielded them from any accountability for their crimes. Furthermore, the administration prosecuted and jailed former CIA agent John Kiriakou for blowing the whistle on torture.
President Donald Trump has enthusiastically embraced torture, vowing during the 2016 campaign to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Trump has also said he will seek to alter US law so that waterboarding is no longer considered a war crime. The president has followed through on promises to commit other war crimes, including one to “bomb this shit” out of Islamic State militants and “take out their families.”
GITMO proponents argue that detainees there are not subject to protections against torture under domestic and international law and that the focus should be on the horrific crimes of al-Qaeda committed on September 11, 2001. Military prosecutor Clayton Trivett Jr., who has been involved in some of the most high-profile Guantánamo cases, argued public opinion should be more concerned with the “summary execution” of nearly 3,000 people on September 11, 2001 than with human rights violations against accused terrorists. However, numerous high-ranking GITMO officials have resigned over what they claim is a corrupt military commissions system established to prosecute detainees at any cost. Former GITMO lead prosecutor Col. Morris Davis called trials there “rigged from the start.”
Marine Corps Gen. Michael Lehnert, the first GITMO commander, has called for the prison’s closure, arguing that its continued existence helps America’s enemies and “validates every negative perception of the United States.”
“In retrospect, the entire detention and interrogation strategy was wrong,” Lehnert wrote in 2013. “We squandered the goodwill of the world after we were attacked by our actions in Guantánamo, both in terms of detention and torture.”