Beliefnet

GENEVA, May 15 (AP) - Electroshock devices to restrain prisoners, ``excessively harsh'' prison conditions and police ill-treatment of civilians were cited by a U.N. human rights panel Monday in its first-ever report on torture in the United States.

The U.N. Committee against Torture recommended that the government end the use of stun belts and restraint chairs, finding they ``almost invariably'' breach a torture convention ratified by the United States in 1994.

In assessing federal and state compliance with the convention, the panel expressed concern over cases of abuse involving people arrested or imprisoned in the United States, and said ``much of this ill-treatment by police and prison guards seems to be based upon discrimination.''

The committee also voiced concern over ``the excessively harsh regime'' in prisons used for the most violent prisoners.

The report follows a two-day session last week in which officials defended the United States.

Cheryl Sim, a U.S. official, told the panel that the government would give the recommendations ``very close and careful consideration.'' Officials declined further comment.

``We welcome the concern expressed by the committee,'' said Rob Freer of human rights group Amnesty International.

``It's a strong message to the United States that once you ratify these treaties you have to do so in the same way that everybody else does.''

In a report to the committee released last week, Amnesty cited brutality, beatings and shootings by police officers, sexual abuse of female prisoners and cruel conditions in isolation units as violations of the torture convention.

The committee praised the United States for its ``extensive legal protection against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,'' and for ``the broad legal recourse to compensation for victims of torture.''

But it expressed concern that legal action by prisoners seeking redress ``has been significantly restricted ... under the Prison Litigation Reform Act'' of 1996.

The panel called on the United States to enact a federal law making torture a crime in terms consistent with the convention.

It said that female detainees are ``very often held in humiliating and degrading circumstances'' and expressed concern over alleged cases of sexual assault by law enforcement and prison officers.

The committee also expressed concern over the use of chain gangs, in which prisoners perform manual labor while shackled together, and at keeping juveniles among the regular, adult prison population.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh last week told the committee Washington is ``utterly committed'' to wiping out torture, but admitted its record is not perfect.

Koh rejected claims that the United States set its own standards for deciding whether it had committed torture. The U.S. delegation also said electroshock devices were used only where the prisoner was a danger to himself or to others, and constituted ``effective tools for law enforcement.''

Freer said he was disappointed the U.N. panel had not addressed American use of the death penalty against offenders who were not yet 18 when they committed their crimes.

A group of American activists called for stronger criticism of the death penalty.

``The system doesn't self-correct,'' Sonia Jacobs, a former death row inmate who was eventually freed, told reporters. ``It self-protects.''

``It is a moral failure to sit in silence while we exterminate people,'' said Rick Halperin, a human rights professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. ``The United States must be held accountable for what we are doing.''




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