President George W. Bush should end the transfer of detainees to countries that routinely engage in torture, such as Syria, if he is to fulfill his pledge to champion democracy and human rights in the Middle East and honor the United States' international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a November 6 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, President Bush condemned the government of Syria, along with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, for leaving its people "a legacy of torture, oppression, misery, and ruin." According to the U.S. State Department's annual human rights reports, Syria torture methods include beatings, administering electric shocks, pulling out of fingernails, forcing objects into the rectum, and bending detainees into the frame of a wheel and whipping their exposed body parts.

Yet last year, the United States reportedly transferred Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, to Syria after having detained him in New York as he was en route from Tunisia to Montreal. On November 4 in Ottawa, Arar publicly asserted that, while held in Syrian prisons for 10 months, he was repeatedly tortured by being whipped with a thick electric cable and threatened with electric shocks.

Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has reportedly facilitated or participated directly in the transfer of numerous persons without extradition proceedings, a practice known as "irregular rendition," to countries in the Middle East known to practice torture routinely.

"Denouncing torture in Syria, and then handing over prisoners to Syrian torturers sends the ultimate mixed message," said Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch. "The Bush Administration cannot effectively promote change in the Middle East and elsewhere unless the United States is seen as a credible and consistent champion of human rights."

Expelling, returning or extraditing a person to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing that he or she would be subjected to torture is a violation of the Convention against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a treaty that the United States ratified in 1994.

The Bush administration has acknowledged this obligation, and asserts it does not render suspects if it believes it is likely that they will be tortured. The U.S. Defense Department General Counsel, William Haynes, on June 25 wrote to U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy: "Should an individual be transferred to another country to be held on behalf of the United States, or should we otherwise deem it appropriate, United States policy is to obtain specific assurances from the receiving country that it will not torture the individual being transferred to that country. We can assure you that the United States would take steps to investigate credible allegations of torture and take appropriate action if there were reason to believe that those assurances were not being honored."

Human Rights Watch urged the United States to promptly investigate Maher Arar's allegations, including the conduct of U.S. officials and the legality of his detention and subsequent transfer to Syria. The U.S. government should publicly report on its findings and hold accountable those responsible for unlawful actions.

"This case shows that diplomatic assurances about the treatment of detainees are often hollow and are not being effectively monitored," Malinowski said. "The Bush administration has an obligation under its own policy to investigate these allegations and take appropriate action."

It also urged the Bush administration to institute a moratorium on the rendition of persons to countries that routinely use torture until it has undertaken a broader review of the U.S. practice with regard to renditions. The review must examine the nature of the assurances the United States receives from countries prior to transfer, the steps it takes to ensure persons are not abused after rendition, and the actual fate of those who have been turned over to countries known to practice torture.

Before it lifts the moratorium, the United States must also ensure that its practices are consistent with U.S. and international law, and that procedures are in place to protect transferred detainees from being subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.