The Guardian 24 August, 2005

Gateway to torture

The Howard governmentís continued failure to speak out against US breaches of the Geneva Convention in its treatment of Iraqi prisoners puts the governmentís moral credibility on the line, writes Marian Wilkinson.

Just recently I learnt for the first time that an Australian military officer working on secondment with US forces in Iraq had confidentially told the Howard government he had been privy to evidence indicating the US was keeping "ghost detainees" in Iraq.

Hiding ghost detainees from the International Committee of the Red Cross and failing to process them properly is a gross breach of international law and for good reason. As human rights lawyers repeatedly point out, secret detention is a gateway to torture. When detainees are "taken off the books", they immediately become exposed to abuse, torture and disappearance.

Yet when the Australian Defence Minister, Robert Hill, and senior members of the Howard government were given the information, their response was to hand the report quietly over to the US Embassy in Canberra for US authorities to investigate.

Senator Hill never told parliament or the public the details of the report, saying simply it was something he was "quite confident" the US would have wanted brought to their attention.

Yet at the very time Senator Hill uttered these words last year, the highest levels of the US government, including senior officials in the CIA and Pentagon, were doing their best to cover up the "ghost detainee" scandal.

Army investigators examining the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse were repeatedly thwarted by the CIA and upper levels of the Pentagon when ever they attempted to probe the sensitive question of keeping ghost detainees, often so-called "high value" prisoners US intelligence wanted to interrogate.

Evidence that the Bush administration was, and is, flouting international law in Iraq and elsewhere in the "war on terror" keeps mounting, and with it evidence that Australia is willing to acquiesce in these practices.

In March this year, The Washington Post examined US army documents showing the CIA "ghost detainee" program was systematic and known to senior US intelligence officials in Iraq.

According to The Post, from September 2003 a steady stream of ghost detainees was brought to Abu Ghraib after the CIA and US military intelligence officials worked out an agreement to keep the Red Cross in the dark about the practice.

At least one of these detainees died, in the shower room, at Abu Ghraibe after a blow to the head. His body was secretly removed from the jail, wrapped in plastic and packed in ice. Ironically, the detainee was suspected of involvement in the savage bombing of the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad, but whatever information he had, whatever his crime, he would now never be brought to justice.

This is just one of the flaws with the policy of keeping ghost detainees in secret prisons. Some intelligence officials argue the value of harsh interrogations of ghost detainees is necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks. But not only does the practice open up detainees to torture and abuse, often it can lead to false confessions and false leads.

It almost always prevents suspects from being brought to trial, either because the prisoner has been tortured or the evidence has been gathered illegally in a variety of other ways and cannot be used in a court. While the Howard government has publicly condemned the abuses at Abu Ghraibe, it has never publicly criticised its coalition partner for running ghost detainees, backing the Bush administrationís claim that the abuses in Iraq were just the work of low level troops running amok.

Likewise in the case of the Australian terrorist suspect Mamdouh Habib, the Howard government has yet to publicly call on the US ally to account for its role in the apparent illegal detention of Habib in Egypt, where he says he was brutally tortured.

Neither the Australian Foreign Minister nor Prime Minister has ever protested to the US government over Habibís detention, senior government ministers and officials ducked and weaved when questioned about it, lamely saying the Egyptian government would not tell them Habib was in their custody before the US arranged for him to be sent to GuantŠnamo Bay.

By unreservedly backing the Bush administration in the "war on terror", the Howard government refuses to examine whether the delicate balance between the rule of law and national security is now out of kilter. As Australia celebrates its return to the UNís Human Rights Committee, it is only a matter of time before more embarrassing revelations about our willingness to turn a blind eye to severe breaches of international law further undermines our credibility to speak on human rights.

Marian Wilkinson is the National Security Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and the author of three books, including Dark Victory (with David Marr) on the Tampa crisis.

Courtesy Amnesty International

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