By Rob Sachs
Interview with Juan Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on torture
Bradley Manning, the army private accused of engineering the biggest leak of classified information in the US history, returns to a court for a second day. Today a military judge could decide whether the defense attorneys get access to certain people and information ahead of trial. Yesterday one of his lawyers asked the judge in a case to dismiss the charges saying the Government had bungle turning over the documents in a case however the military lawyers disagreed. Here to talk more about the case is Juan Mendez.
Juan Mendez, welcome!
Hello! Thank you for inviting me. You did say it correct.
Excellent! You have been very outspoken about Bradley Manning and specifically the treatment that he’s received by the US military. You said “as far as the treatment, you can say it could be described as torture”. Can you explain what you meant?
Well, first this is one of 250 cases from around the world that I worked on. It has got a lot of publicity but I wanted to make it clear that it’s just the ordinary way in which rapporteurs seems do their business. We get complaints from the public, we engage the respective government in a dialog and then we issue our comments on the facts and on the characterization in international law. Essentially I did not say of what happened to Manning it was torture, what I said is that it amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment which a not below a torture in the international law.
Nevertheless it’s of course an absolute prohibition and States have to refrain from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. I said so on the basis of the information I gathered. Basically he spent eleven months, three in Iraq and eight in Quantico base in Virginia, on the conditions of solitary confinement, meaning that he would have to stay in his cell for 23 hours of every day and he would be accompanied to do exercises by himself for the remaining hour every day. Now, under the literature that I have surveyed that kind of treatment creates a pain on suffering of a psychological nature and that is serious enough that it can and should be classified as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
I also said that it could amount to torture if it was even more severe that the pain on suffering that was inflicted on him. But I did not have the means of establishing that because despite my request the Government did not allow me to visit Manning on conditions in which my conversation with him would not be monitored and so I had to decline. So, I was not able to ask him specifically about what happened to him during those eleven months. So, it could amount to torture, I just don’t have the means of knowing of whether it has reached that level of gravity.
Isn’t this very similar to what we see all over US prisons regarding the type of treatment as solitary confinement. How is his treatment any different from what happens all across the country?
Well, it isn’t very different. In a sense a solitary confinement means basically that inmates spend a lot of hours a day by themselves. But a solitary confinement has many different incarnations within the United States and even abroad. I wrote a general asset I reported to the General Assembly about a solitary confinement generally because it is being used very broadly in many different countries and for many different reasons and purposes. And the lack of adequate standards means that it is used more and more, and for less and less justified reasons. And therefore I was trying generally to generate a conversation about what standards should be applied and for example that an indefinite solitary confinement should be prohibited altogether. And the same is with a prolonged solitary confinement, although establishing when exactly, at what time it becomes prolonged, this is a little complicated. And I also think it should be prohibited for minors and for people who have any form of mental disability because it only aggravates any problem that they may have.
Within that however there are possibly situations in which some isolation is justified and even necessary but even for those it should be some procedural and other safeguards that should be applied. In the case of Manning, this was pursuant to regulations that the marine court apply in Quantico and whether those regulations were abused or not in this case would require some further investigation but essentially there seems to me to be a problem with those regulations if they allow for nine months of solitary confinement which in fact is what happened to Manning.
What does the confinement of Manning in a way he was confined say about the overall treatment the United States gives to those the army commanders and the military fear are a threat to the nation?
Well, you know, you have to look at case by case. I’m is engaged with the Government of the United States on several cases that have been brought to my attention but those conversations are pending and so a hundred of rules that I apply for the United Nations, I can’t comment on them. But some of them do involve a solitary confinement and it is a serious concern of mine.
Looking at the case of Manning specifically a lot has been said of how infuriated the military was and how the diplomats were over him for a suspected leaking of these documents. Could we say that the way he was treated in prison is any type of retaliation for that or was this protocol and you are looking to say the protocol needs to be treated not in this one specific case but for all the cases?
Well, in the conversations with me the Government said there were two reasons for this treatment. One is that he was contemplated for the serious nature of the offence that he would be charged with eventually. And the second one – that he was for some prevention of harm, they didn’t call it a “suicide watch” but they called it “prevention of harm watch”.
Now, for the first one it seems to me that for someone on pretrial detention, who has not been found guilty of any crime establishing a very severe form of surveying time is not only a violation of his right to be treated humanely but also a violation of his resumption of innocence. And with respect to the other reason, namely the prevention of harm, the Government citing privacy concerns did not disclose what harm was supposed to be prevented that way but evidently if it was a harm to himself – this treatment could only make it worse, and if was a harm to any other – there was no evidence on the record anywhere that Manning had ever been violent with anybody.
So, it seems to me like whatever the reason is the treatment by the US Government itself has acknowledged a constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. But I have to say that I’m referring to the situation that ended in April of 2011 because at that he was moved to another prison and since then, about eleven months ago and until now he is not subjected to a solitary confinement. He is in the general population of the Fort Leavenworth Prison.
Where do things go from here if we see Bradley Manning convicted for a long term, will you be following him through a prison as your act as the UN Special Rapporteur on torture? How much oversight, I mean you talked about the cases you are looking after, how much can you be involved in watching him specifically as he moves through the judicial system?
Well, I’m in touch with the Manning’s council and he will refer to me and ask me to intervene if there is any reason to suspect that his treatment is in violation of the international law rules but at this point I’m following it essentially as any other concerned citizen because I’m not actively monitoring his situation. My case with regards to him that dealt exclusively with the conditions of his confinement is essentially over, I have already published my report about it.
So, what would you like to see happen from here, would you like to see any type of change in protocol, would you like to see some type of apology or what would be the best case scenario for you at this point in regard to the Manning’s case?
You know, I’m not involved in whether he should be tried or not and for what crime but if he is given a prison sentence, thenI would hope it would be brought to my attention the manner in which he serves it. My mandate as a Special Rapporteur on torture does not extent to questions of fair trial etc. or arbitrate attention, that is amid of others special rapporteurs, noy mine. What needs to happen with regards to a solitary confinement generally – well, I hope that there is a move towards taking it seriously and considering limitations and restrictions on its use so that it doesn’t affect so many people so adversely psychologically as it does.