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Group seeks investigation of detainees' mistreatment complaints

WASHINGTON—Two major reports recounting the abuse of prisoners captured in the war on terrorism were released Wednesday as a new coalition of conservatives and liberals urged the creation of a Sept. 11-style commission to investigate the mistreatment.

Amnesty International, a human rights group, called the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba "the gulag of our time"—a reference to the brutal Soviet labor camps of the Cold War.

And newly declassified FBI documents revealed that prisoners in Guantanamo Bay complained of beatings and the desecration of the Quran as early as 2002—months after the prison opened.

"The treatment of prisoners goes to the question of who we are. We owe it to ourselves to do this," said David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and one of those calling for an inquiry. He said the reports of abuse were too numerous to ignore.

Wednesday's developments increased pressure on the Bush administration and Congress to launch an independent investigation, which they've so far resisted.

Keene, who has close ties to Republican congressional leaders, was the co-chairman of Constitution Project, which is seeking the creation of the independent commission. The group is a Georgetown University organization that seeks consensus on difficult legal issues.

Urging the investigation were former FBI director and federal judge William Sessions; ex-GOP congressman Bob Barr, a leader in the impeachment of President Clinton; John Whitehead, the president of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal organization; former CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite; former United Nations ambassador Thomas Pickering; and John Podesta, Clinton's chief of staff.

Keene called the group "cross-ideological."

Several members of the group said widespread reports of mistreatment and the fact that military investigations after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal didn't examine the accountability of top leaders created the need for an independent government-wide probe.

"All the military investigations have been looking downward, not up," said Kevin Barry, a retired captain in the Coast Guard.

As the campaign was announced, Amnesty International released its annual human rights report, which accused the United States of lowering standards on the treatment and interrogation of prisoners.

The United States tried to "dilute the absolute ban on torture" and "grants a license to others to commit abuse with impunity," Amnesty's report said.

In all, the report catalogued abuse complaints involving 149 countries.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the complaints in Amnesty's report were "unsupported by the facts" and abuse allegations were being properly investigated.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, a Pentagon spokesman, said recent abuse allegations "seem to fit the standard operating procedure in al-Qaida training manuals" to make false claims.

The declassified FBI records were released by the American Civil Liberties Union and revealed more complaints about the desecration of the Quran.

In response to a Newsweek report that was later retracted, Defense Department officials said they've investigated reports of abuse of the Quran and found them not credible.

At a press conference Wednesday, several participants in the Constitution Project acknowledged that Congress and the Bush administration have largely ignored previous calls for an independent investigation from human rights and legal groups.

"This is a topic that a lot of people just want swept under the rug," Barr said.

But Barr, Pickering and others said the long-term nature of the war on terrorism and the need for allies in the Muslim world put pressure on the United States to properly investigate abuses and act to prevent them.

The latest revelations in the FBI reports, which were heavily censored, don't say whether various complaints were investigated or confirmed.

Some detainees told the FBI they were badly beaten in Afghanistan, then treated better in Guantanamo. One unidentified detainee said he gave false information "because he feared torture."

Several detainees said that, in 2002, guards and interrogators at Guantanamo kicked the Quran and threw it in a waste bucket. One detainee said a guard took his prayer cap and threw it in the trash.

Another prisoner admitted that he made a false claim of Quran desecration that caused an uproar in July 2002, seven months after the prison camp was opened.

One prisoner told the FBI in 2003 that interrogators were withholding the Quran from some detainees to get them to talk and predicted that the tactic would fail.

"The only thing which would result from these actions would be the damage caused to the reputation of the United States once what had occurred was released to the world," the prisoner said, according to the FBI report.

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For a copy of the report, go to http://amnesty.org/

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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