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"Torture" takes on new meaning in post-9/11 U.S.

Reuters/Claudia Parsons | December 7 2005

Torture has always been rife around the world but governments have generally condemned it, denied it, or both.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, though, some experts say the U.S. government has tried a new tactic -- redefining the meaning of torture.

Reports of abuse of prisoners in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay have incensed U.S. adversaries and alienated allies. This week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has come under pressure in Europe over reports of secret CIA prisons in Europe.

"There was never a world where torture didn't exist," said Manfred Nowak, the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Torture, adding it is practiced "in a great many countries around the world."

"But usually, until recently, those governments would never actually admit they're torturing," he said.

"Now we have for the first time both an academic and a political debate saying 'We are living under new conditions. Sept. 11 has changed the rules of the game and that's why we have to rethink the absolute prohibition on torture.'"

Washington says the Geneva Convention does not apply to foreign captives in its "war on terrorism" but human rights activists say it is still bound by the 1984 U.N. "Convention against Torture," to which it is a signatory.

President George W. Bush said again on Tuesday that the United States does not practice torture, or send suspects to foreign countries that torture.

A survey by the Pew Research Center last month showed that 46 per cent of Americans believed torturing terrorism suspects to extract vital information was "sometimes" or "often" justified and 17 per cent said it might be justified "rarely."


ABC News quoted CIA sources last month as saying that six "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" had been instituted for top al Qaeda suspects, including slaps and extreme cold.

The most severe is "water boarding" in which a prisoner is bound to a board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet, ABC said. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him, inducing a feeling of drowning.

"The cellophane is a modern addition to a technique that had its origins in the Spanish Inquisition," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, adding that the State Department itself defines the technique as torture.

"There's not just confusion between the U.S. definition and everybody else's definition of torture, there's profound confusion within the U.S. government," Malinowski said.

In October the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a proposal by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was tortured as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, for a ban on "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment of detainees.

But the White House has been pushing to exempt the CIA, arguing that it would hamper anti-terrorism operations.

Michael Greenberger, a senior Justice Department official in the Clinton administration who now heads the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security, said McCain was trying to bring the United States into compliance with international norms, while Bush wanted to leave the door open for the CIA to act beyond those norms without prosecution.

In Europe, Rice has defended U.S. treatment of detainees, saying that the war on terrorism was "challenging our norms and our practices..." but that intelligence gathered by the United States "very often ... saves European lives."

In an article in Newsweek last month, McCain argued against relaxing the standard of what amounts to torture.

"To make someone believe that you are killing him by drowning is no different than holding a pistol to his head and firing a blank. I believe that it is torture, very exquisite torture," he wrote.

And if the United States is torturing prisoners, McCain wondered what results such treatment has brought.

"Abuse of prisoners often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear -- whether it is true or false -- if he believes it will relieve his suffering," McCain said.

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