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U.S. defends human rights record before U.N. committee in Geneva

GENEVA—U.S. officials defended the United States on Friday against allegations that it's allowed the torture of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying the United States has an "absolute commitment" to eradicating torture and preventing abuse.

The U.N. Committee Against Torture met the defense with skepticism, accusing American officials of playing word games and of mounting a legalistic defense rather than confronting specific accusations of prisoner abuse.

"There is the rule of law, and the rule of what is right," said committee member Guibril Camara, of Senegal.

The U.S. defense and the committee members' comments came during the opening meeting of a two-day hearing into American adherence to the U.N. Convention Against Torture. U.S. officials are expected to return Monday to respond to questions.

The hearing is intended to probe a variety of American activities, including long-standing issues in domestic prisons ranging from the psychological strain to inmates of living on death row to the use of stun guns by guards.

But the meeting quickly focused on interrogation methods that U.S. intelligence agents have used on prisoners taken during the war on terrorism. Those methods have been criticized in the United States and worldwide.

"I want to reiterate the United States government's absolute commitment to upholding our national and international obligations to eradicate torture and to prevent cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment anywhere," State Department legal adviser John B. Bellinger III said in opening remarks.

Bellinger argued that the American treatment of detainees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo fell outside the U.N. Convention Against Torture. He said the U.N. convention was "never intended to apply to armed conflicts" but was aimed at protecting people in "the ordinary domestic legal processes."

That line of defense, however, won little praise from the committee.

Committee Chairman Andreas Mavrommatis, of Cyprus, who in 2002 issued a scathing report of human rights abuses in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, said the U.S. deserved praise for its "unique status . . . in the field of human rights."

But he added that such status comes with obligations. He said photos of American abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq had stunned him. He said they brought back memories of his trip there under Saddam's regime.

Another committee member, Essadia Belmir, of Morocco, wondered "if different interpretations" of U.N. documents "are simply word games."

The U.N. created the panel in 1984 and charged it with periodically reviewing how well countries adhere to the Convention Against Torture, which went into effect in 1987. During the current session, which began Monday and will end May 19, the committee is considering actions by the United States, Georgia, Guatemala, Peru, Qatar, South Korea and Togo.

The panel will issue a report but has no enforcement powers.

The United States has sent an unusually large 30-member delegation to the hearing, an expression of American concern over the negative publicity generated by a stream of abuse allegations that began with the publication of photos from Abu Ghraib in early 2004.

Bellinger urged committee members not to believe everything they've read about U.S. abuses. "Allegations about U.S. military or intelligence activities have become so hyperbolic as to be absurd," he said.

State Department official Barry Lowenkron acknowledged that the United States had made mistakes, but he said efforts had been made to stop abuse and to discipline those responsible. "When we make mistakes, we take corrective measures," he said. "Our system is designed to do just that. We are an open society."

Representatives from the Justice and Homeland Security departments are among the American delegation.

Committee members asked few questions about specific reports of abuse. Several members asked why the United States doesn't have specific laws outlawing torture. One committee member also asked about reports that pregnant inmates are shackled in American prisons during childbirth.

U.S. officials are expected to respond to those questions Monday.

The committee's report isn't expected for several weeks.

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

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