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UN's report on Iraq discusses possible coalition war crimes
by MATTHEW SCHOFIELD FREE PRESS FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT
Detroit Free Press
June 5, 2004

BERLIN -- Coalition forces involved in the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners might be guilty of war crimes, the top UN official for human rights said in a report released Friday.

The 45-page report by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is not entirely critical. It says Iraq is better off now than before the invasion, when it was under "a brutal, murderous, torturing gang that preyed on its own people," referring to deposed President Saddam Hussein's regime.

It also notes the difficulties of working in a country subject to terrorist attacks and insurrection, and that "hardships suffered by Iraqis in the aftermath of the victory of Coalition Forces were clearly not intended."

Nevertheless, the report concludes that serious problems occurred in Iraq. It details a range of abuses, from the torture and sexual humiliation of prisoners to other military operations that unjustly prevented Iraqi civilians from traveling or using hospitals and other facilities safely.

The report also says torture and psychological coercion against prisoners to extract intelligence violate international humanitarian law.

"Willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, if committed against detainees protected by international humanitarian law, constitute a grave breach under the Geneva Conventions and therefore, of international humanitarian law, and is prohibited at any time, irrespective of the status of the person detained," the report says. "The above-described acts might be designated as war crimes by a competent tribunal."

The report also denounced "acts of depravity" by Iraqi insurgents and terrorists, including the videotaped decapitation of American Nicholas Berg last month.

Acting Commissioner Bertrand Ramcharan of Guyana, who has been in the position since Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil was killed in a terrorist attack in Baghdad last summer, said the report was based on interviews and other information from governments, news media and human rights sources.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the criticisms "are certainly a matter of concern," and that the U.S. government sought more details about some of the allegations in order to investigate them.

He said he thought a war crimes charge was unlikely to arise because the United States was already taking action on its own and would prosecute those responsible for abuses against Iraqi prisoners.

"I think the Uniform Code of Military Justice is competent to act on the abuses that occurred," he said.

Seven U.S. soldiers face military charges, and the Defense Department said it is investigating more than 40 cases of possible misconduct against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The UN report said the detention process lacked transparency and accountability, and so the world had little information about the imprisoned Iraqis.

The report also found that coalition troops interrogated children, humiliated Muslim women and jailed men without explanation. It also cited cases in which coalition forces allegedly threw Korans on the ground or tore them apart.

The report said the first allegations of prisoner abuse were raised by human-rights groups such as Amnesty International in July 2003. It said Vieira de Mello also raised concerns in a July 15 meeting with coalition officials.

The report includes events from as recently as this week.

Ramcharan ordered the broad investigation in April, saying he was concerned because the United Nations has not monitored Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

The 53-nation commission scrutinized Iraq for years but stopped after Hussein was ousted last year.

Contact MATTHEW SCHOFIELD at mschofield@krwashington.com. Free Press news services contributed to this report.

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