Global Policy Forum

Lawyer Who Told of US Human Rights Abuses at


By Warren Hoge

New York Times
April 30, 2005

A United Nations human rights monitor who accused American military forces and civilian contractors last week of abusing and torturing prisoners in Afghanistan has been told his job is over. M. Cherif Bassiouni, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago who was the human rights commission's independent expert for Afghanistan, said Friday that he had received an e-mail message from a commission official in Geneva a week ago telling him his mandate had expired. The day before, he had released a 21-page report saying that Americans running prisons in Afghanistan had acted above the law "by engaging in arbitrary arrests and detentions and committing abusive practices, including torture."

In an interview from his Chicago office, he said that he had been expecting a routine two-year renewal but that the United States had lobbied against him because of his persistent efforts to examine American-supervised prisons and his disclosure that prisoners were being detained in remote "fire bases" constructed for combat operations.

Kurtis Cooper, a State Department spokesman, denied that Mr. Bassiouni's ouster could be attributed to American pressure. "This was a decision that was made in light of the fact that more than three years after the Taliban, the human rights situation in Afghanistan had evolved to the point where it could be monitored under the ordinary procedures of the high commissioner for human rights without the need of an independent expert," he said.

Brenden Varma, a spokesman for Secretary General Kofi Annan, who appointed Mr. Bassiouni to the post, said that he was widely respected for his long human rights record, but that his tenure was up to the human rights commission, and "they decided that the situation had improved and that it was time for the mandate to expire."

Mr. Bassiouni, born in Cairo, was chairman of the Security Council's commission to investigate war crimes in the former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1994, and leader of a program to train 450 judges in Afghanistan in 2003. He said he had not intended to be confrontational. "When I went to Afghanistan last year, in my mind, my role was not to go there and shame them but to help them," he said. "I didn't see myself as someone going to fix the blame but to fix the problem." He said he was rebuffed repeatedly in his efforts to visit prisons at the United States bases in Bagram and Kandahar by American officials who told him he was exceeding his mandate.

He discovered the use of 14 fire bases for detainees, he said, when he spotted an American military order warning commanders against keeping captives at the spots for more than two weeks. Despite the lack of cooperation, he said, he had no trouble learning of rights violations. "Arbitrary arrest and detention are common knowledge in Afghanistan because the coalition forces are known to go to villages and towns and break down doors and arrest people and take them whenever they want," he said.

He said victims' descriptions of their American captors' appearance had struck a grim note of recognition because of his past experience. "It was very reminiscent of what I had seen in the former Yugoslavia, where you would ask victims of beatings and torture who had abused them and they would say they couldn't identify them because they wore battle fatigues with no names and no insignias."

Asked what he thought would happen to prisons in Afghanistan now, he said, "My guess is that torture will go down at the U.S. facilities, but what will go up is torture at the Afghan facilities. It's the usual shell game. The U.S. feels the heat, it tries to discontinue the practice itself, but it finds special forces in the Afghan Army to do its bidding."

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