Tuesday, March 1, 2005

A federal lawsuit filed yesterday accuses Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of being directly responsible for the purported torture of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan and failing to take action once abusive practices became public last year.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights First filed the lawsuit in Illinois on behalf of four Iraqi and four Afghan prisoners, who say they were tortured while in U.S. custody. The lawsuit was filed in Illinois because it is Mr. Rumsfeld’s home state. It is seeking compensatory damages for the eight men and a declaration that Mr. Rumsfeld’s actions were illegal.

“The Abu Ghraib incident was not an isolated event,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. “Rumsfeld bears direct responsibility for the abuses.”

Photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison were made public last year, and at least seven soldiers were charged. Five pleaded guilty, one was convicted and one is awaiting court-martial.

The Pentagon rejected all charges.

“No policies or procedures approved by the secretary of defense were intended as, or could conceivably have been interpreted as a policy of abuse or as condoning abuse,” according to a Pentagon statement.

Much of the case is based on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, in particular complaints lodged by the FBI with the Defense Department in 2002 about purported abuse of prisoners by military teams at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

The ACLU says Mr. Rumsfeld personally approved new, harsher interrogation techniques for detainees in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo in December 2002. Prior to that time, the military was forbidden from engaging in torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The techniques Mr. Rumsfeld approved, including hooding, clothing removal, 20-hour interrogations and the use of dogs to scare prisoners, eventually migrated from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003 through soldiers who served in both wars, according to the ACLU.

The accusations of the eight men named in the lawsuit include being severely beaten; sexually assaulted; stabbed; hung from their wrists; deprived of food, water and sleep; threatened with dogs; deprived use of the toilet; and undergoing extreme sensory deprivation.

Mohammed Sabbar, 36, said he and other Iraqi detainees were forced to stand in front of a fake firing squad, and soldiers laughed as the prisoners soiled themselves in fear.

Lawyers for Mr. Rumsfeld are likely to argue that the defense secretary’s approved techniques were consistent with legal opinions produced in 2002 by the Office of Legislative Counsel at the Justice Department, which significantly tightened the definition of torture to exclude all but those acts that cause permanent damage or organ failure. The Justice Department changed the definition back to its original form last year.

The ACLU has filed similar lawsuits against Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq; Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who commanded the military police brigade in charge of Abu Ghraib; and Col. Thomas Pappas, who headed the military intelligence unit at the Iraqi jail. None have been criminally charged for the Abu Ghraib abuse.

According to the Pentagon, more than 100 people in the military have faced disciplinary proceedings for detainee abuse, which it presented as evidence that the Defense Department does not condone abuse or torture.

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