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US Puts Militants At Risk Of Torture By Transferring To Iraq

Fifteen United States senators, including Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have signed on to a Senate resolution, which urges President Barack Obama to open the Guantánamo Bay military prison to new detainees.

The resolution was introduced after the capture of Sleiman Daoud al-Afari by U.S. Special Forces in Iraq on March 9. Afari is believed to have worked as the Islamic State’s chemical weapons chief. He previously was part of Saddam Hussein’s Military Industrialization Authority.

As The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman reported, the proposed resolution declares, ““All individuals captured by the United States during combat operations against Isil that meet the criteria by their affiliation with Isil must be detained outside the United States and its territories and should be transferred to United States Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay.”

But the Obama administration no longer has Afari in custody. He was interrogated for intelligence, which anonymous officials claimed led to two U.S. strikes against the Islamic State. He was then transferred into the custody of the Iraqi government.

While Republicans renew their efforts to prevent the ongoing human rights atrocity that is the Guantánamo Bay military prison from being brought to an end, a critical point is that transferring captives to the Iraqi government instead of Guantánamo does not satisfy human rights concerns. It may be even worse for any alleged or known militants captured, given the government’s record of brutal torture.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook was asked about whether potential detainees, like Islamic State militants, would be brought to Guantánamo in the future. The reporter also asked if it was the policy of the Pentagon to hold captured fighters for the short-term and then release them from U.S. military custody.

Cook stated Afari provided information to the U.S. military and then he was handed over to the Iraqi government. “We think that’s a template for future cases.”

Later, Cook added, “We have a government on the ground in Iraq, a partner in the fight against [ISIS], that we feel confident we can rely on in this instance.” The U.S. is working in “close coordination” with the Iraqi government.

Amnesty International’s most recent report on human rights in Iraq highlighted the fact that torture and abuse remains “common and widespread in prisons and detention centers.” It is “committed with impunity.” Interrogators torture detainees to “extract information” and obtain “confessions.” Multiple detainees have died as a result of torture. The UN Committee Against Torture has criticized the Iraq government for refusing to investigate torture allegations and increase safeguards against torture.

It is very possible that people like Afari are threatened with the prospect of harsh treatment, including torture, in order to coerce them into providing information to U.S. military interrogators. It also is highly likely captives like Afari are passed on to Iraqi security forces to be further interrogated in a brutal manner, which the Obama administration does not feel it could defend if details became known to the public.

Iraq has systemic problems with arbitrary arrests and detentions without judicial warrants. Often, terrorist suspects are arrested without informing suspects or their families why they are being charged. Detention often amounts to “enforced disappearance,” according to Amnesty International.

The criminal justice system in Iraq has severe flaws and Amnesty says the judiciary lacks “independence.” Courts admit “torture-tainted ‘confessions'” as evidence. These “confessions” are often broadcast on “state-controlled television channels before suspects” are referred to trial. Lawyers, who represent terrorism suspects, face threats and intimidation from security forces. (Note: Many of these problems also plague the U.S. military commission system.)

According to Amnesty International:

In July, the Central Criminal Court of Iraq in Baghdad sentenced 24 alleged IS [Islamic State] members to death after it convicted them of unlawfully killing at least 1,700 military cadets from the “Speicher” Military Camp, near Tikrit in Salah al-Din governorate, in June 2014. Four other men were acquitted. The trial, which was completed in a few hours, was based mainly on “confessions”, which the defendants said they had been forced to make under torture in pre-trial detention, and video footage of the massacre previously circulated by IS. The defendants all denied involvement in the killings, with some denying that they had been present in Tikrit at the time of the crime. None of the defendants had legal counsel of their own choosing but were represented by court-appointed lawyers, who requested leniency but did not dispute the evidence or the admissibility of the ‘confessions.’

The U.S. government may claim it is obtaining “diplomatic assurances” from Iraqi officials that captives alleged to have engaged in terrorism as members of ISIS will not be tortured, but torture and abuse is so widespread that the U.S. cannot transfer these individuals into Iraq’s custody without speaking openly about the need for Iraq to do something about torture.

A prime issue is that the U.S. government also does not prosecute anyone for torture, but the fact of the matter is the U.S. has signed on to the Convention Against Torture. It is not to transfer detainees to countries, where they are likely to be tortured. If the U.S. is going to capture more detainees (instead of killing them with drone strikes), it has an obligation to also do something about the human rights abuses, which are a significant feature of Iraq’s criminal justice system.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."