November 16, 2010 / 5:07 PM / 10 years ago

INTERVIEW-UN expert urges full U.S. torture investigation

* New rapporteur aims to probe torture in Iraq, Guantanamo * Mendez backs inquiry into Bush administration

* Visits to Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, Cuba also high priority

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Nov 16 (Reuters) - The new U.N. torture expert urged the United States on Tuesday to conduct a full investigation into torture under the Bush administration and prosecute offenders as well as senior officials who ordered it.

Juan Ernesto Mendez told Reuters he also hoped to visit Iraq to probe a “very widespread practice of torture” of detainees with the help of coalition forces, revealed in confidential U.S. files issued by Wikileaks.

He will also try to visit the U.S. detention centre at Guantanamo — on condition that he is granted private interviews with prisoners still being held by the Obama administration, he said in his first interview with an international media organisation since taking up the independent post two weeks ago.

“The United States has a duty to investigate every act of torture. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much in the way of accountability,” said Mendez, himself a former torture victim, in the wide-ranging interview at the United Nations in Geneva.

“There has to be a more serious inquiry into what happened and by whose orders... It doesn’t need to be seen to be partisan or vindictive, just an obligation to follow where the evidence leads,” added Mendez, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture.

A previous investigation by a U.S. special prosecutor into torture allegations was limited in scope, and congressional inquiries focused on the Pentagon but not the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), according to Mendez.

“There is a lot more to the story than has been revealed. It is important to get to the bottom of what happened and under whose orders, and if necessary to bring charges,” he added.

Mendez dismissed as “very disingenuous” comments by former President George W. Bush, who in his memoir “Decision Points” strongly defends the use of waterboarding as crucial to his efforts to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Bush’s approval of waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning condemned by human rights activists as torture, to try to wrench information from captured al Qaeda operatives, was among the most controversial decisions he made during eight years in the White House.

Amnesty International said last week that the United States must prosecute Bush for torture if his admission in the memoir that he authorised waterboarding holds true.


Mendez, 65, is a lawyer who himself survived torture while jailed by Argentina’s military dictatorship in the mid-1970s for denouncing torture and defending opponents of the regime, before being expelled from his homeland.

He recalled his arrest on the street and being tortured with electric prods and beatings, a treatment also suffered by lawyers defending political opponents of President Isabel Peron.

“It was very intense, they gave me five sessions with cattle prods in less than 24 hours. They kept me in incommunicado detention about a week so the signs on my body would disappear.”

Mendez said he would place victims at the heart of his three-year mandate, reporting to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Winning permission to visit Zimbabwe and Kyrgyzstan would be among his priorities in the coming year, as well as a first-ever trip to Cuba to probe the prison conditions of hunger strikers.

“Victims have the right to see justice done, and to participate in the process, and the state also has an obligation to provide reparations,” he said.

Mendez, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., succeeds Austrian Manfred Nowak and is the fifth expert to hold the position in 25 years. (Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Tim Pearce)

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