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Report blames top U.S. officials for alleged torture of detainees

BERLIN—Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees by U.S. forces is widespread and, in many cases, sanctioned by top government officials, Amnesty International charged Wednesday.

The allegations, contained in a 32,000-word report released in New York and London and posted on the human rights organization's Web site, are likely to influence a U.N. hearing on U.S. compliance with international torture agreements that begins Friday in Geneva. Amnesty International sent a copy of the report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, which is holding the hearings.

"Although the U.S. government continues to assert its condemnation of torture and ill-treatment, these statements contradict what is happening in practice," said Curt Goering, the group's senior deputy executive director in the United States. "The U.S. government is not only failing to take steps to eradicate torture, it is actually creating a climate in which torture and other ill-treatment can flourish."

American officials denied the allegations. "There's no more staunch defender of human rights around the world than the United States government," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, said "humane treatment of detainees is and always has been the (Defense Department) standard." He noted that a dozen reviews of military detention operations had found no evidence that the top officials encouraged abuse.

The report notes that American military officials have listed 34 deaths of detainees in U.S. custody as "confirmed or suspected criminal homicides." It suggested that the true number may be much higher, saying "there is evidence that delays, cover-ups and deficiencies in investigations have hampered the collection of evidence."

"In several cases," it says, "substantial evidence has emerged that detainees were tortured to death while under interrogation. . . . What is even more disturbing is that standard practices as well as interrogation techniques believed to have fallen within officially sanctioned parameters, appear to have played a role in the ill-treatment."

The Amnesty International report was a foretaste of the hearing in Geneva, scheduled for Friday and Monday.

The United States is dispatching a delegation of 30 officials to testify at the hearing, which is a follow-up to a review in 2000 that was critical of America's treatment of inmates in its domestic prisons.

The hearing is expected to focus on the allegations of mistreatment of prisoners taken captive in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or seized by U.S. agents in other countries and later jailed at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or at undisclosed locations.

The United States is one of seven nations the committee is reviewing during meetings this month. The others are Georgia, Guatemala, Peru, Qatar, South Korea and Togo.

The United States is one of more than 140 nations that have approved the convention against torture. The U.S. has written to the committee saying it's unequivocally opposed to torture.

The Amnesty International report questions that, saying there's evidence that top American officials had approved abusive interrogation techniques.

"Most of the torture and ill-treatment stemmed directly from officially sanctioned procedures and policies, including interrogation techniques approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld," said Javier Zuniga, Amnesty International's Americas director.

The report criticizes the United States for giving those convicted of abuse relatively light sentences.

"The heaviest sentence imposed on anyone to date for a torture-related death while in U.S. custody is five months, the same sentence that you might receive in the U.S. for stealing a bicycle," Goering said. "In this case, the five-month sentence was for assaulting a 22-year-old taxi driver who was hooded and chained to a ceiling while being kicked and beaten until he died."

The Amnesty International report is available online at http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engamr510612006

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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