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(New York) - The US Department of Justice should open a criminal investigation into post-9/11 interrogation practices, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder released today.

"It's crucial the Justice Department investigate the torture and ill-treatment of detainees," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The United States can't truly claim to have repudiated these egregious human rights violations unless it returns to the day when it treated them as crimes rather than as policy options."

Last week, Newsweek magazine reported that Holder is considering opening a criminal investigation into the previous administration's abusive interrogation practices. Human Rights Watch said that such an investigation and appropriate prosecutions would send the strongest possible signal that the US government is committed to foreclosing any future use of torture and other ill-treatment.

By abolishing secret CIA prisons and banning the use of torture, President Barack Obama has already taken important steps toward setting a new course. But this effort to renew America's commitment to democratic values and human rights requires the administration to confront the past as well. Only by dealing appropriately with past abuses will the US government be seen to have surmounted them.

"As the nation's top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Holder shouldn't be satisfied that crimes have stopped; he should punish the serious crimes that were already committed," Roth said. "He owes it to the victims, to the law, and to the prospect of deterrence."

Human Rights Watch called upon Holder to take steps to ensure that any investigation reaches the officials most responsible for serious abuses. The investigation should not be limited to low-level personnel who may have employed unauthorized interrogation techniques, but rather should examine the responsibility of the senior officials who planned, authorized, and facilitated the use of abusive methods that were in violation of US and international law.

Any investigation that failed to reach those at the center of the policy, while pinning responsibility on line officers, would lack credibility both domestically and internationally, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch urged Holder to reject the sweeping view that officials implicated in torture and other ill-treatment explicitly covered by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel memoranda are thereby protected from criminal prosecution.

"The Justice Department should not let the infamous ‘torture memos' become a get-out-of jail free card," Roth said. "This would risk validating the Bush administration's cynical strategy of preemptively constructing an elaborate set of legal defenses to justify criminal acts."

Responding to commentators who claim that any effort to address past abuses would be politically divisive and might hinder the Obama administration's ability to achieve pressing policy objectives, Human Rights Watch pointed out the high cost of inaction. Any failure to carry out a criminal investigation into torture and other ill-treatment would be widely understood as purposeful toleration of illegal activity - and as a way of leaving the door open to future abuses.

A failure to investigate would also demonstrate to the nation and to the world that, despite promises of institutional reform, the Justice Department is unable to insulate itself from political influence, Human Right Watch said.

Several treaties ratified by the United States, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, require that all states investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute those responsible for serious international crimes such as torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

"By opening an investigation into the grave abuses carried out since September 11, you would begin the process of bringing the United States into line with its international obligations, and remedying the harm done to the US reputation abroad by its use of torture," Roth said in the letter.

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