The US military has retained the power to inflict prolonged sleep deprivation on detainees, despite moves by the Obama administration to eliminate interrogation techniques that amount to torture and ill-treatment, the United Nations warned on Friday.
In a review of the human rights record of the US, the first of its kind since 2006, the world body’s committee against torture has slammed the country for its ongoing violations of international treaties. The review’s many complaints address indefinite detention without trial; force-feeding of Guantanamo prisoners; the holding of asylum seekers in prison-like facilities; widespread use of solitary confinement; excessive use of force and brutality by police; shootings of unarmed black individuals; and cruel and inhumane executions.
The committee’s conclusions, released in Geneva on Friday, praise President Barack Obama for having banned excessive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding that were widely used under the previous Bush administration in the wake of 9/11. But it cautions that one important method that was central to Bush’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” – sleep deprivation – continues to be approved for use.
The authorisation of the method is contained in an appendix of the Army Field Manual called Human Intelligence Collector Operations. Appendix M allows military interrogators to practice what is known as “physical separation” of detainees to prevent them communicating with each other and, by so doing, sharing information that would help them resist questioning.
Under Appendix M, interrogators are told to avoid exposing detainees to several of the most popular forms of abuse practiced during the Bush years, such as deafening noises, freezing cells or incessant light. However, the rulebook goes on to give permission for detainees to be kept awake for up to 20 hours a day.
It says: “Use of separation must not preclude the detainee getting four hours of continuous sleep every 24 hours.”
The provision has set alarm bells ringing at the UN’s committee against torture. The body points out that the rule can be applied against a detainee for an initial period of 30 days that can then be renewed; the measure amounts to “authorising sleep deprivation – a form of ill-treatment”.
The committee calls on the US immediately to abolish the provision. The recommendation is just one of a slew of complaints and demands that the world body makes in its review of the US track record on torture.
Many of the harshest criticisms are reserved for the Bush administration’s excesses between 2001 and 2009. But the committee is critical of how the current US government has failed, in its view, to clean up the mess that was created in the wake of 9/11.
In particular, it wants to see the US acknowledge torture as a specific criminal offence at the federal level, thereby removing possible loopholes in the law. It also urges the US Senate select committee on intelligence to publish as quickly as possible its report into the CIA’s historic detention and interrogation programme that has been caught up in political wrangling for months.
Jamil Dakwar of the American Civil Liberties Union commended the UN panel for its insistence that the Obama administration matches its rhetoric with action by supporting full accountability for torture.
“As a start, that means allowing the release of the Senate’s torture report summary without redactions that would defeat report’s primary purpose, which is to expose the full extent of government abuse. It also means ensuring a top-to-bottom criminal investigation of the torture that occurred.”
As protests against the shooting of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, continue to sweep the country, the UN criticizes the growing militarization of policing activities and expresses “deep concern” over “frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals”.
Though it does not mention Ferguson or Darren Wilson, the police officer who this week was spared charges for killing Brown, it does note the “difficulties to hold police officers and their employers accountable for abuses”.
The committee also condemns 4,000 deaths of inmates in prisons and jails each year, particularly those caused by “extreme heat exposure while imprisoned in unbearably hot and poor ventilated prison facilities” in states such as Arizona and California.
It states that the widespread detention of super-maximum security prisoners in total isolation for up to 23 hours a day is unacceptable and laments recent executions of death row inmates that caused “excruciating pain and prolonged suffering”.