Rights groups urge Obama to mount Guantanamo probe

Miami HeraldNovember 12, 2008 

Two human rights groups urged the future Obama administration on Wednesday to appoint a well-funded commission with subpoena power to systematically examine the U.S. treatment of detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere since the 9/11 attacks.

Activists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights made the recommendation as they released a two-year study of the impact of U.S. detention and interrogation practices on former captives at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The report, based on interviews with 62 released detainees, found that many of the detainees, even after they were released, faced emotional scars and had difficulty finding jobs once they returned to their home countries. A third of the detainees believed they had been sold into captivity. Nearly two-thirds said they had suffered emotional difficulties since leaving Guantanamo, and recalled traumatic treatment such as short shackling and being held in hot or cold extremes.

About a third reported their faith had strengthened in captivity Many described their treatment while in U.S. custody as "abusive" and said they did not understand the quasi judicial proceedings they'd participated in prior to their release.

A McClatchy investigation published earlier this year, also based on interviews with released prisoners, reached similar conclusions.

The report included a forward by Patricia Wald, a former U.S. appeals court judge who served on the international tribunal that prosecuted war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Wald also was appointed by President George W. Bush to the commission that studied U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq.

"I was struck by the similarity between the abuse they suffered and the abuse we found inflicted upon Bosnia Muslim prisoners in Serbian camps," Wald wrote of the U.S. detainees.

"The officials and guards in charge of those prison camps and the civilian leaders who sanctioned their establishment were prosecuted — often by former U.S. government and military lawyers serving with the tribunal — for war crimes, crimes against humanity and, in extreme cases, genocide," she added. Wald later was appointed by President George W. Bush to the commission that sutdied U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq.

The proposal for a special investigation of detention policies similar to the 9/11 Commission is not new.

But it comes at a critical time -- as Democrats are creating a transition for President-elect Barack Obama, who campaigned on a promise to close the controversial prison camps in southeast Cuba.

The groups do not specifically recommend who should run the panel, or any other aspect of its composition, but they suggest members be drawn from the ranks of former military officers, medical and psychological providers, and international law experts.

They say the group should tackle still-open questions surrounding the interrogation, detention and rehabilitation of former detainees, with an eye toward recommending criminal investigations if it uncovers "any crimes at all levels of the chain of command.''

The report recommends that any future commission consider:

-- Whether there is a need to reform how the United States apprehends and screens suspected enemy fighters.

-- Ideas on how to prevent abusive detention and interrogation practices.

-- How to improve the monitoring of treatment of former detainees upon their release from U.S. custody. Should the commission conclude the U.S. government violated a detainee's rights, it said, it should consider issuing an apology, providing compensation or a method of formally clearing the detainee's name to lessen any stigma associated with time served in southeast Cuba.

The Defense Department holds about 250 foreign men in the prison camps today and has already sent home for resettlement or further investigation some 520 others.

Critics of U.S. detention and interrogation policy have at times called for a special prosecutor to investigate whether White House policies that endorsed such practices as waterboarding of CIA detainees violated international law.

In July, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof urged the U.S. to set up a ''Truth Commission'' armed with subpoena power to establish accountability, not necessarily to bring about prosecutions.

Its objective, he wrote, should be "to lead a process of soul searching and national cleansing.''

"That was what South Africa did after apartheid, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it is what the United States did with the Kerner Commission on race and the 1980s commission that examined the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.''

But Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has helped Guantanamo detainees sue for their freedom, disagreed with the idea on Wednesday.

He said such commissions are on occasion established after regime change abroad, to uncover truths and move on. Should crimes be uncovered, he said, those responsible should be prosecuted.

Read the full report.

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