Torture Used by U.S. Military at Guantanamo Bay Despite Being Banned, UN Says

The use of torture has persisted at the U.S. military-run Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba despite it being banned by both U.S. and international law, a U.N. human rights investigator claimed Wednesday.  Getty Images

Updated | The use of torture has persisted at the U.S. military-run Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba despite it being banned by both U.S. and international law, according to information obtained by a top United Nations human rights investigator.

On Wednesday, Nils Melzer, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, said he's encountered evidence Ammar al-Baluchi—an alleged co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks—continues to be subjected to practices that constitute torture.

"Mr. al-Baluchi has been held in isolation at a severely restricted-access facility at Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade," Melzer said in a statement. "In addition to the long-term effects of past torture, noise and vibrations are reportedly still being used against him, resulting in constant sleep deprivation and related physical and mental disorders, for which he allegedly does not receive adequate medical attention."

Before taking office, former President Barack Obama had promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but ultimately failed to do so.  Getty Images

These allegations come nearly a decade after the U.S. banned so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques"—torturous practices approved by the George W. Bush administration in the wake of 9/11. Torture also remains illegal by international law, which Melzer was careful to note in his statement.

"This is one of the most fundamental norms of international law, and its violation is listed among the most serious international crimes, including crimes against humanity and war crimes," Melzer said. "No circumstances, however exceptional and well argued, may be invoked to justify torture."

Melzer claimed the U.S. is in "clear violation" of international law for "failing to prosecute the crime of torture in CIA custody," adding, the U.S. has sent "a dangerous message of complacency and impunity to officials in the US and around the world."

In an email to Newsweek, Melzer said if the reports he's received are true, "the conditions of detention some of the high security inmates are subjected to can only be described as cruel, inhuman and degrading. The only way to determine whether these reports are accurate is for the US to finally allow independent verification by internationally recognised experts."

"What matters most, and what cannot be disputed, is that US officials have resorted to systematic torture in the past and that the US has consistently refused to prosecute the responsible perpetrators and policy makers," Melzer added. "This misguided policy of deliberate impunity for state-sponsored crimes of utmost gravity is not only a danger to U.S. national security, but violates the most basic principles governing any civilized nation, namely humanity, justice and the rule of law."

A 2014 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee acknowledged the use of torture by the U.S. against suspected terrorists. Former President Barack Obama also publicly addressed the fact the government had "tortured folks" following 9/11. But the Pentagon denied Melzer's claims the practice has continued at Guantanamo Bay, the controversial detention center opened in 2002 by former President George W. Bush to house alleged terrorists. "These claims have been investigated on multiple occasions in the past and no credible evidence has been found to substantiate his claims," Major Ben Sakrisson, a Department of Defense spokesman, told Newsweek.

In a statement sent to Newsweek on Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson also pushed back against Melzer's allegations, stating his "conclusions" reflect his independent "perspectives."

"It's also important to remember that [Melzer's] perspectives, reflected in reports or press releases, are not legal obligations and may go beyond what is required by international law and what is the practice of most States," the spokesperson added.

Meanwhile, human rights experts expressed a lack of surprise at Melzer's claims. Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer and founder of the human rights organization Reprieve, who was at Guantanamo Bay last week, told Newsweek via email, "The treatment of detainees remains abysmal, after all these years."

"Though the word 'torture' distracts us from the real issues. We should not aim to treat human beings 'a little bit better than torture,'" Smith, who has provided legal defense to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, added.

The Department of Defense established the prison at Guantanamo Bay under President George W. Bush in 2002. Getty Images

There are 41 men being held at Guantanamo Bay—26 have never been charged with a crime, and five continue to be held despite being cleared for release, according to a March 2017 report from the American Civil Liberties Union. It costs roughly $7 million per year to hold one detainee at the U.S. military-run detention center. Since it opened in January 2002, Guantanamo Bay—also known as Gitmo—has seen nearly 800 men pass through.

Due to the ugly practices linked to Guantanamo Bay, it has been widely cited as a recruiting poster for terrorism. Jihadist media and propaganda have frequently mentioned the prison. An essay by Osama bin Laden from 2010, for example, explicitly mentioned it as a place that "shook the conscience of humanity."

Before coming into office, Obama promised to close the controversial facility, but ultimately failed to do so after facing intense opposition to such a move from members of Congress.

Despite it being illegal and a breadth of evidence it doesn't work, President Donald Trump has expressed support for the use of torture. During his presidential campaign, Trump said he wanted to "load up" Guantanamo Bay "with some bad dudes" and has pushed to expand the detention center since entering the White House. Newsweek reached out to the White House for a comment on Trump's thoughts regarding the new allegations of torture at the Cuba-based prison, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

Amnesty International, which has long campaigned against torture and for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, is urging the Trump administration to take Melzer's report seriously and echoed his calls for an independent investigation.

"There must be accountability––including prosecutions––for torture and other ill-treatment carried out by the US government since the 9/11 attacks," Zeke Johnson, senior director of programs for Amnesty International USA, told Newsweek. "President Trump and other members of his administration who have supported waterboarding must renounce torture and commit to ensuring it never happens again."

Update: This article has been updated to include a comment from Amnesty International.