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(Washington, DC) - US President Barack Obama's executive order to end the use of torture sets a new course for US counterterrorism policy, Human Rights Watch said today. Obama's decision to issue this order within two days of becoming president signals the high priority the new president places on establishing legal and effective counterterrorism policies.

"For years, the Bush administration claimed, ‘We do not torture,' yet approved methods like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and prolonged exposure to cold," said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. "President Obama's order rejecting such practices is a major step toward restoring America's moral authority around the world."

The executive order on torture issued today sets a government-wide single standard of humane interrogation, ends the use of secret CIA "black sites" for detention, and mandates that the International Committee of the Red Cross be granted access to all detainees held by the US outside of the ordinary criminal or immigration system.

Under the order, all government agencies are required to apply the Army field manual on interrogation - which has been used by the military since 2006 - without exception. The order also prohibits the reliance on any of the Bush Justice Department's legal opinions on interrogation or detention.

"This executive order makes meaningful the US commitment not to torture detainees," Daskal said. "President Obama has rejected the abusive practices of the last seven-and-a-half years."

The order also creates an interagency task force, led by the attorney general, to evaluate the interrogation practices allowed by the Army field manual, "and, if warranted, to recommend any additional or different guidance for other departments or agencies."

Human Rights Watch said that any new interrogation manual should apply a single standard across all government agencies. The manual should be public and include an exhaustive list of approved techniques that all follow the "Golden Rule" standard.

"Today, Obama made huge strides to put US counterterrorism policies on a legal and effective course," said Daskal. "He should now categorically reject the illogical claim that the standard for humane and effective treatment somehow varies across agency."

The order does not address the legality of what is known as rendition to torture - the practice of illegally transferring a person to a country where he or she faces torture or persecution - and instead leaves review of that practice to the task force as well. The best known case is that of Maher Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy airport in September 2002, flown to Jordan, and then driven across the border to Syria, where he was detained in a tiny cell for almost a year and tortured repeatedly.

Human Rights Watch said that Obama repeatedly condemned the practice of rendition to torture on the campaign trail, and urged him to put an end to this illegal practice as well.

An executive order on Guantanamo, also issued today, sets January 2010 as a date certain for the prison's final closure, suspends the use of military commissions, and puts in motion a review of the detainees' files.

Another order creates an interagency task force to review detention and interrogation policies going forward. A fourth order mandates a review of the fate of Saleh al-Marri, a Qatari who was on the eve of trial for credit card fraud when he was declared an "enemy combatant" and transferred to a naval brig in South Carolina in 2003. He has been there ever since.

"At the end of the review period, we hope and expect that Obama will either return al-Marri to federal court or order his release," said Daskal.

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