Human Rights Monitors Doubt U.S. "Diplomatic Assurances" That Detainees Won't Be Tortured

July 11, 2006 12:00 am

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ACLU and Columbia Law School's Human Rights Clinic Seek Information About U.S. Transfer of Detainees to Countries That Torture

NEW YORK -The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Law School's Human Rights Clinic today filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information to determine U.S. compliance with domestic law and international agreements that prohibit the transfer of individuals to countries where they face a substantial risk of torture. The request seeks information on transfers of individuals by the U.S. to foreign countries on the basis of assurances obtained from these countries that they will not torture the individuals.

"The practice of obtaining diplomatic assurances from destination countries is entirely inadequate for preventing the torture of individuals transferred there by the United States," said Amrit Singh, a staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "We have filed this FOIA request to monitor the use of such assurances and to prevent the torture of individuals transferred to foreign countries by the United States."

The Convention Against Torture, ratified by the U.S. in 1994, prohibits the U.S. from transferring a person "to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture." That prohibition has also been implemented in domestic law. But the U.S. has sought to avoid its treaty obligations by transferring individuals to countries--including those known to employ torture - that provide assurances that they will not torture such individuals.

News reports suggest that the United States has obtained such assurances from countries known to employ torture, such as Syria and Egypt, but little is known about the extent to which the U.S. relies on such assurances when transferring detainees to foreign countries.

The U.S. government has acknowledged in a report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture that it both removes and extradites people to foreign countries after receiving diplomatic assurances. The same report states that the United States transfers detainees such as those held in Guantánamo Bay Cuba after receiving assurances that the foreign governments concerned will treat the detainees humanely.

Yet human rights organizations and the U.N. Special Rapporteur Against Torture have all said that the assurances cannot effectively prevent the torture of transferred individuals. High-ranking U.S. officials such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have also recognized that the United States cannot ensure that transferred individuals will not be tortured. The FOIA request seeks records related to the transfer of individuals in a number of different contexts, including immigration removal, extradition, transfer from Guantánamo Bay, and all other transfers from United States custody. The request has been filed with the CIA and the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security.

"Until now we have only known what the government has chosen disclose about diplomatic assurances in response to leaks and rumors," said Peter Rosenblum, director of Columbia's Human Rights Clinic. "The American public deserves light to be shed on this obscure but important practice, which is what this FOIA request is intended to do."
In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld recently ruled that the military commissions used to try detainees held by the U.S. in Guantánamo Bay are unfair and illegal . Of the approximately 460 detainees held, only ten have been charged with crimes and brought before the military commissions. The remaining detainees have been held without charge for up to four years. The Supreme Court's decision calls into question the existence of the facility, which has been strongly and repeatedly condemned domestically and by the international community.

As the U.S. government continues to transfer detainees from Guantánamo Bay to foreign countries, human rights organizations have expressed deep concern that the U.S. government might send detainees from Guantánamo Bay or other facilities to countries where they may be in danger of mistreatment, abuse or torture.

In a related development, news accounts today report that the Department of Defense has determined that all detainees held by the United States are protected by the Geneva Conventions, specifically pointing to Article 3 which prohibits inhuman treatment and guarantees certain legal rights. This is a marked shift from previous policy when the Bush administration insisted that detainees were not eligible for such protections. The ACLU applauded the decision to treat detainees in accord with international norms, and noted that the protections should never have been denied.

The FOIA is available online at:

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