By Chris Caesar
OC Voice Staff Writer
While Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher made repeated assurances that he takes the problem of detainee abuse “very seriously” during an interview with the OC Voice recently, he apparently lacked familiarity with a number of issues associated with the system – including the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to detainees, and a number of widely documented incidents of abuse.
Critics chastised the congressman earlier this month for dismissing mistreatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay – specifically, an incident in which a pair of women’s underwear was placed on a prisoner’s head – as an act of “humiliation” and “frat boy pranks,” not torture. Rohrabacher made the remarks June 6 as a member of the Human Rights subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
While both the humiliation and torturing of prisoners is expressly forbade in the Geneva Conventions, Rohrabacher nevertheless stressed the importance of the distinction.
“The whole point is: what is the definition of torture?” he said. “We’ve had people define torture [so broadly] that it has become meaningless – if you tickle someone with a feather, is that torture? That’s certainly a physical tactic, and by the definitions some people have used for ‘torture,’ it would include tickling someone with a feather.”
While maintaining he “spend[s] a lot of time and effort reading…reports” on the issue, the Congressman still expressed disbelief that over 108 detainees had died in US custody, and that over 25 of the incidents are considered acts of homicide by the Pentagon, according to government data obtained by the Associated Press and recent testimony by Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights hearing on torture.
A Feb. 2006 report by Human Rights First claimed that over 100 detainees had died in custody since 2002, including 34 cases that were suspected or confirmed murders and 8 cases where the victims had been tortured to death, but that only 12 of those deaths had resulted in disciplinary action. The extensive report was based on government documents and is online at www.humanrightsfirst.org.
Rohrabacher also expressed incredulity at other documented acts of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse against detainees, but noted he thought there was a “big difference between an American soldier who doesn’t intentionally target civilians,” and non-uniformed terrorists under the Geneva Conventions.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, extended the protections of the Geneva Convention to “enemy combatants” in a 2006 decision. Detainees in the “war on terror” have been held without due process of law, but the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled last month that they have the right to challenge their detention and seek release in court.
“Listen – I’m not someone who reads the Geneva Convention or says I am an expert in it,” he explained. “…some people have told me that [the Convention] does not apply to those not in uniform.”
The Congressman added he was “of course” concerned that these abuses may be endured by those falsely imprisoned by U.S. forces, though he has previously characterized such detentions as the “price we pay in the real world,” for security, noting he’d rather falsely detain ten innocent people then let 90 terrorists “walk the street.”
“When we found possible examples of [false imprisonment], I have been very supportive of trying to free them and get them compensation and an apology,” he said. “No matter what are you trying to accomplish…there are going to be people who are accidentally caught up in a bad situation who are not guilty, and are unintentionally hurt.”
A little over half of the initial 775 prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay have been released from the prison without charge since 2002, according to Amnesty International. A 2004 report from the International Red Cross quotes intelligence officials who estimate as many as 90 percent of detainees in Iraq are arrested by mistake or in mass detention, and have no connection with terrorism.
Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook, the Democratic challenger for Rohrabacher’s seat in the 46th district, said Rohrabacher’s ignorance was “rather shocking.”
“I’ve followed the situation at Guantanamo Bay, but it would be really difficult to miss this sort of information [if you read the news],” she said. “I just can’t believe he wasn’t familiar with these issues.”
“It’s the unfortunate result of gerrymandered districts – when you no longer have to compete for your seat, you become very complacent in your ability to hold onto it,” she added. “So you lose your competitive edge; really, you almost lose interest in governance.”
But in an interview with the OC Voice earlier this year Cook proclaimed ignorance of her own about the related issue of holding government officials, including President George W. Bush, accountable for conducting a war based on false evidence. “I’m not going to sit as judge and jury over something I don’t know about,” she said, adding, “I’ve been focused here on local issues. I don’t spend my time 24/7 studying what Bush did or didn’t do.”
Efforts to contact Green Party candidate Tom Lash for comment were unsuccessful.