US rebuffs torture questions before UN committee

THE United Nations yesterday grilled American officials over claims that the United States has broken the global ban on torture during the war on terror.

The UN Committee Against Torture, the watchdog for a 22-year-old treaty forbidding prisoner abuse, rejected US refusals to discuss intelligence matters, such as alleged secret CIA prisons and flights transferring suspects for possible torture in other countries.

The committee went into a range of issues, from Washington's interpretation of the absolute ban on torture to its interrogation methods in prisons, including Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

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US officials acknowledge that mistakes had been made and that 29 detainees in facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan had died of what appeared to be suspected abuse or other violations of US law.

John Bellinger, a State Department lawyer who led the US delegation at the hearing, defended Washington's commitment to its international obligations, and he read prepared answers to written questions submitted in advance from the committee.

He said the delegation was unable to answer all questions, because much of the information related to intelligence activities.

But Andreas Mavrommatis, the chairman of the committee, said although he could understand that intelligence matters needed careful treatment, "they are not excluded" from scrutiny.

"If during intelligence activities there is a violation of the convention, it's our duty to investigate them and your duty to answer," he said.

Mr Bellinger's 25-member team includes officials from the US defence, justice and homeland security departments. In a meeting on Monday, officials will respond to oral questions from committee members.

Charles Stimson, a deputy assistant secretary of defence, said 120 detainees had died in Iraq and Afghanistan but none at Guantanamo Bay.