Approved Interrogation Guidelines May Be Enabling Abuses at Undisclosed Bagram Detention Facility

When President Obama signed an Executive Order on his second day in office mandating a uniform standard for all US interrogations, the human rights community was relieved and gratified. Years of advocacy to end torture and abuse of detainees had finally paid off. There was still a lot of work to be done on accountability for past abuses but at least we could be confident no new abuses would occur.Well, here we are 16 months into the Obama Administration, still dealing with serious allegations of abuses of detainees in Afghanistan. Disturbing reports about a second, undisclosed US detention facility at Afghanistan’s Bagram Airbase have been circulating for many months. Now they have taken on a new level of concreteness with confirmation from the International Committee of the Red Cross that they have been notified of prisoners detained in the separate facility by US authorities since August 2009. While the ICRC has not made any public comments about abuses taking place at the second facility, a BBC reporter has interviewed a number of former prisoners from the facility who have described a now familiar litany of abuses: Isolation in cold cells; sleep deprivation; and beatings by US soldiers. One detainee says he was denied sleep for 24 days by noise-making machines and constant lights. He also reports that he spent 5 days shivering in a cold cell.The most troubling aspect of these allegations is that the US officials using these techniques may believe they are in compliance with interrogation guidelines. The Army Field Manual's Appendix M [PDF] explicitly allows the use of isolation and uses sleep manipulation as an integral part of an interrogation program. As surmised here by the BBC’s Hilary Andersson, the officials at the second, secret site may believe what they are doing is perfectly legal under the cover of the Army Field Manual:[display_podcast]In reality, as PHR has demonstrated in several reports in recent years, the techniques used in Appendix M can easily cross the line into torture and cruel and inhuman treatment. The profoundly harmful mental health effects of isolation and sleep deprivation are documented in PHR’s report Leave No Marks (with Human Rights First) at pages 30-33 and in PHR’s Break Them Down at pages 59-69.Appendix M itself acknowledges the danger of abuse posed by separation and requires special safeguards and notification while urging officials to “mitigate the risks associated with its use.” It is not clear that Appendix M is being explicitly relied on as authority for the alleged abuses at Bagram. What is clear is that even the existence of Appendix M signals that sleep manipulation and isolation are appropriate techniques for use on prisoners. Once a permissive environment is created in which subjecting detainees to these approaches is seen as acceptable or even routine, the safeguards included in Appendix M can easily be ignored. As PHR has previously described (see reports above) attempts to calibrate how much pain and stress a detainee can stand very easily cross the line into torture and cruel treatment. PHR believes that the risks associated with Appendix M are unacceptable. The prohibition against torture is absolute and interrogation guidance must clearly and unambiguously reflect that rather than relying on ineffective “safeguards.” US personnel should not be put in a position to engage in potential violations of US and international law and detainees must be afforded the protections enshrined in applicable anti-torture law. Appendix M should immediately be rescinded.The Obama Administration has made repeated pledges to end torture and abuse and to conduct detainee operations in as transparent a manner as possible. Yet, here we are again with familiar denials and a lack of transparency about US detention operations. Again there are evasive answers from US officials that obscure the purposes of facilities and fail to identify agencies responsible for operating them. Senior officials in the Obama Administration need to live up to their commitments by completely investigating the Bagram allegations, providing clear and transparent information about detention operations worldwide and establishing effective oversight mechanisms for DoD and other agencies' screening, detention and interrogation programs.

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