(New York) The Bush administration's first formal response to allegations of torture and other mistreatment of detainees in Afghanistan risks legitimizing practices that are legally prohibited, Human Rights Watch said today.

The administration replied in writing last week to a letter from Human Rights Watch calling on President Bush to investigate and condemn allegations of torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment that emerged in press reports last December. According to unnamed U.S. officials quoted in those reports, the United States has subjected detainees at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan to sleep deprivation, holding them in awkward, painful positions, and other "stress and duress" techniques of interrogation.

In its response to Human Rights Watch, signed by Department of Defense General Counsel William J. Haynes II, the administration states "United States policy condemns torture." But it does not acknowledge that the United States has a legal obligation to refrain from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The letter also fails to address whether the United States is using the specific "stress and duress" techniques that have been widely reported over the past several months. Earlier statements by White House officials claimed that U.S. interrogators were acting in full compliance with domestic and international law.

"The administration's response is totally inadequate," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Disavowing torture is welcome. But side-stepping detailed reports of mistreatment invites the conclusion that the reports are true. When combined with its claims that U.S. interrogators are acting lawfully, the Bush administration gives the impression that this kind of mistreatment is legitimate."

As a party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the United States has accepted a legal obligation not to engage in torture or other forms of mistreatment. Interrogation techniques do not have to rise to the level of torture to be prohibited if they fall under the category of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

Methods similar to those the United States is reportedly using have been found to be illegal mistreatment under international law, including in landmark decisions by the Israeli Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights. The U.S. Department of State has condemned numerous countries for using similar techniques, such as sleep deprivation and placing prisoners in awkward, painful positions. Its annual human rights reports list these methods as forms of torture or other cruel or inhuman treatment.

"The administration is sending a very unfortunate signal to other governments, including potential captors of U.S. soldiers, that such practices are acceptable," Roth added. "The U.S. government needs to unequivocally state that it is not engaging in the same kinds of cruel and inhuman treatment that it rightly condemns abroad."

In ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture, the United States limited its commitment regarding cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment only to conduct that is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishment, would clearly prohibit much of what reportedly is being done at Bagram.

The administration's letter does not state whether the U.S. government - either the Department of Defense or the CIA - instructs its officials to refrain from engaging in cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees. It does not indicate that the specific allegations are being investigated fully, and that anyone found to have engaged in cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment will be prosecuted or otherwise held accountable. The administration has also inadequately responded to reports that the United States has transferred suspects to the custody of countries that routinely practice torture. Human Rights Watch welcomes Haynes' statement that the U.S. government seeks assurances from foreign governments that they will not torture a detainee before handing him over. But he does not say whether the United States takes any steps to verify that governments are in fact treating rendered suspects humanely, or whether it takes any action if it learns that they are not. In its annual report on human rights practices, the Bush administration documents torture by the countries to which suspects have reportedly been handed over for interrogation, such as Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

"The Bush administration should not just accept assurances from the very same countries whose use of torture the U.S. government itself has documented," said Roth. "It's hardly reassuring to know that the administration is taking Egypt at its word on torture. If the Administration is following up on these cases and taking action to ensure transferred suspects are not tortured, it needs to say so."