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There is no justification for torture

IN THE WEEKS since the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison were revealed, evidence continues to seep out of similar mistreatment of prisoners in other US military detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. Top White House and Pentagon officials have sought to deny any pattern of illegality in the interrogation and treatment of prisoners in US custody. They insist that members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban fall outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

The reach of the Geneva Conventions is debatable. What is not debatable is that the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States signed and ratified, makes no distinction between American citizens, Iraqis, or anyone else. It unequivocally forbids the use of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, anywhere, at any time, under any circumstances. So does US law. So does our military's manual for intelligence interrogation.

Yet we now know that the White House and the Pentagon were actively working to circumvent the law. Guidelines for interrogating prisoners were applied routinely in multiple locations in ways that were illegal.

It is also clear that US officials knew the law was being violated and for months, possibly years, did virtually nothing about it.

I first wrote to the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA last June about the reported torture of Afghan prisoners by US interrogators.

Two prisoners had died during interrogation. Others described being forced to stand naked in a cold room for days without interruption, with their arms raised and chained to the ceiling and their swollen ankles shackled. They said they were denied sleep and forced to wear hoods that cut off the supply of oxygen.

My letter, and subsequent letters, were either ignored or received responses which, in retrospect, bore no resemblance to the facts. Sixteen months later, the investigations of those deaths, ruled homicides, remain incomplete.

Prisoners who are suspected of having killed or attempted to kill Americans do not deserve comforts. But the use of torture undermines our global efforts against terrorism and is beneath our nation.

There are many victims of this policy. First are the Iraqis, Afghans, and other detainees, some innocent of any crime who were tortured or subjected to cruel treatment. We now know that many other Iraqis and Afghans died in US custody, and many of those deaths were never investigated.

Second are our own soldiers, who overwhelmingly perform their duties with honor and courage, and who now have been unfairly tarnished.

And then there is America itself. The damage this administration has caused to our credibility will take years to repair.

The individuals who committed those acts are being punished, as they must be. But what of those who gave the orders or set the tone or looked the other way? What of the White House and Pentagon lawyers who tried to justify the use of torture? And what of the president? Last March, referring to the capture of US soldiers by Iraqi forces, President Bush said, "We expect them to be treated humanely, just like we'll treat any prisoner of theirs that we capture humanely. If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals." At the same time, the president's lawyer called the Geneva Conventions "obsolete."

The law makes no exception for torture. The torture of criminal suspects flagrantly violates the presumption of innocence on which our criminal jurisprudence is based, and confessions extracted through torture are notoriously unreliable.

Once exceptions are made for torture it is impossible to draw the line, and more troubling is who would be in charge of drawing it. If torture is justified in Afghanistan, why is it not justified in China, or Syria, or Argentina, or Miami? If torture is justified to obtain information from a suspected terrorist, why not from his wife or children? Some argue it is a new world since the attacks of Sept. 11. To some degree, they are right, which is why we have reacted with tougher laws and better tools to fight this war. But do we really want to usher in a new world that justifies inhumane, immoral and cruel treatment as any means to an end? We must reject the dangerous notion that torture can be legally justified. Democrat Patrick Leahy is a US senator from Vermont. 

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