UN panel on torture questions U.S. on wide range of alleged abuses

The United States came under heavy scrutiny Wednesday from U.N. experts investigating whether it had violated the terms of a global treaty that prohibits torture.

The panel quizzed Obama administration officials not just on the treatment of suspected terrorists held at CIA so-call “black sites” during the administration of President George W. Bush, but also the practices of U.S. police officers and prison guards. Among the topics were prolonged solitary confinement in prisons and the sexual abuse of inmates.

Mary E. McLeod, the acting legal adviser to the U.S. State Department, acknowledged that in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, “We did not always live up to our own values, including those reflected in the convention,” a reference to the 1984 U.N. Convention against Torture, which the United States and 155 other nations have signed.

“As President Obama has acknowledged, we crossed the line and we take responsibility for that,” she said.

But McLeod also told the panel, “There should be no doubt, the United States affirms that torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment are prohibited at all times in all places.”

The session was part of the periodic review of U.S. compliance with the anti-torture convention. The U.S. was last reviewed in May 2006.

U.S. officials are expected to respond Thursday to questions from the 10-member panel on whether the United States has a “specific plan and timetable” for closing the detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and whether the United States intends to release 28 videos of the forced feeding of Guantanamo prisoners who were on a hunger strike. A federal court in Washington has ordered the administration to make the videos public.

The panel also sought an explanation for why the United States has refused to allow the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture to meet privately with detainees at Guantanamo.

Alessio Bruni, an Italian who is one of two investigators for the panel, also pressed for comment on whether the U.S. had made any effort to condemn the alleged kidnappings by the CIA of an estimated 100 people on European Union territory who were then sent to other countries for questioning.

U.S. officials also faced questions on police practices and prison conditions from the other investigator, Jens Modvig of Denmark. Modvig pressed the 27-member U.S. delegation on what the U.S. government has done to review police practices, particularly those in Ferguson, Mo., which was wracked by weeks of unrest after a police officer shot and killed an African-American teenager in disputed circumstances.

Modvig also questioned the delegation on the distribution of military equipment to local police forces and on what independent oversight exists to prevent the excessive use of force by police.

David Bitkower, deputy assistant attorney general with the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal division, told the panel that the department’s civil rights division has opened over 20 investigations “into systemic police department violations over the past five years.” He added, “We have prosecuted over 330 police officers for misconduct.”

Bruni also asked the U.S. delegation why some prison inmates are kept in their cells alone for as long as 23 hours a day, and he noted that news stories have said some prisoners in Louisiana have been in solitary confinement for more than 30 years. He said such treatment causes “anxiety, depression and hallucinations until their personality is complete destroyed.”

Modvig also pointed to reports that as many as 40,000 adult inmates and 1,390 juveniles had reported being sexually victimized by prison staff and asked the U.S. delegation to provide details of how many such cases are investigated each year in the United States.

Bitkower said the Justice Department “is continuing to work to prevent, detect and respond to abuse in U.S. prisons.”

He said the Justice Department last year found that Pennsylvania’s use of “long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement” violated U.S. law and noted that U.S. federal courts “have interpreted the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as prohibiting the use of solitary confinement under certain circumstances.”

But the U.S. delegation also said in its report to the commission that “there is no systematic use of solitary confinement in the United States.”

The anti-torture panel is scheduled to present its findings on Nov. 28.