CAIRO — Human Rights Watch said it has uncovered evidence of a wider use of waterboarding than previously acknowledged by the CIA, in a report Thursday detailing brutal treatment of detainees at U.S.-run lockups abroad after the 9/11 attacks.
The accounts by two former Libyan detainees who said they underwent simulated drowning emerge only days after the Justice Department closed its investigation of the CIA's use of severe interrogation methods. Investigators said they could not prove any agents crossed the lines authorized by the Bush administration in the "war on terror" program of detention and rendition.
Any new instances of waterboarding, however, would go beyond the three that the CIA has said were authorized.
The 154-page report features interviews by the New York-based group with 14 Libyan dissident exiles. They describe systematic abuses while they were held in U.S.-led detention centers in Afghanistan — some as long as two years — or in U.S.-led interrogations in Pakistan, Morocco, Thailand, Sudan and elsewhere before the Americans handed them over to Libya.
The report also paints a more complete picture of Washington's close cooperation with the regime of Libya's former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Islamist opponents of Gadhafi detained by the U.S. were handed over to Libya with only thin "diplomatic assurances" they would be properly treated, and several of them were subsequently tortured, Human Rights Watch said.
"Not only did the U.S. deliver (Gadhafi) his enemies on a silver platter, but it seems the CIA tortured many of them first, said Laura Pitter, counterterrorism adviser at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.
"The scope of the Bush administration abuse appears far broader than previously acknowledged," she said.
Asked about the new waterboarding claim, CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood said the agency "has been on the record that there are three substantiated cases" of its use.
She said she could not comment on the specific allegations but noted the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute after it "exhaustively reviewed the treatment of more than 100 detainees in the post-9/11 period — including allegations involving unauthorized interrogation techniques."
Former President George W. Bush, his Vice President Dick Cheney and the CIA have said that waterboarding was used only on three senior al-Qaida suspects at secret CIA black sites in Thailand and Poland — Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, Aby Zubayda and Abd al-Rahman al-Nashiri, all currently being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The technique involves pouring water on a hooded detainee's nose and mouth until he feels he is drowning. Rights groups and some Obama administration officials say waterboarding and other severe techniques authorized by the CIA constitute torture, while Bush administration officials argue they do not. The Obama administration has ordered a halt to waterboarding and many of the harsh techniques.
The 14 Libyans interviewed by Human Rights Watch were swept up in the American hunt for Islamic militants and al-Qaida figures around the world after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. They were mostly members of the anti-Gadhafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who fled in the 1980s and 1990s to Pakistan, Afghanistan and African countries. The group ran training camps in Afghanistan at the same time al-Qaida was based there but it largely shunned Osama bin Laden and his campaign against the United States, focusing instead on fighting Gadhafi.
Ironically, the U.S. turned around and helped the Libyan opposition overthrow Gadhafi in 2011. Now several of the 14 former detainees hold positions in the new Libyan government.
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