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Dr Singh's daughter takes on Obama

Last updated on: May 14, 2009 12:13 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's New York-based daughter Amrit Singh, took on President Barack Obama for his decision to block the court-ordered release of photographs of detainee abuse by US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and several other prisons.

Amrit Singh was one of the fiercest critics of former United States President George W Bush and his administration for its alleged condoning of torture and other abuse of prisoners.

Obama's decision was a complete U-turn on his own stance on the issue in April, when he signed off on a Pentagon decision that agreed with a case filed by Singh on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, to release these photographs.

Defending his decision, Obama said, "The most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger. Moreover, I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse."

Obama argued, "I want to emphasise that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib, but they do represent conduct that did not conform with the army manual. That's precisely why they were investigated -- and I might add, investigated long before I took office -- and, where appropriate, sanctions have been applied."

"In other words, this is not a situation in which the Pentagon has concealed or sought to justify inappropriate action. Rather, it has gone through the appropriate and regular processes. And the individuals who were involved have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken," he added.

And then rationalising his decision, Obama said, "It's therefore my belief that the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals."

"Any abuse of detainees in unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated," he told reporters, but refused to field further questions on the matter.

But Singh protested vociferously against Obama's decision, and news channels quoted her as saying, "The decision to not release the photographs makes a mockery of President Obama's promise of transparency and accountability."

She told ABC News, "The reversal is another indication of the continuance of the Bush administration's policies under the Obama administration. President Obama's promise of accountability is meaningless, (and) this is inconsistent with his promise of transparency, it violates the government's commitment to the court. People need to examine these abusive photographs, but also the government officials need to be held accountable."

Singh, who had argued the case successfully before the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York at the time, had said that releasing these photographs was "critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorising or permitting such abuse."

She echoed these sentiments on Wednesday in all of her television appearances, saying that "it is essential that these photographs be released so that the public can examine for itself the full scale and scope of prisoner abuse that was conducted in its name."

An ACLU prepared statement, that sources told was drafted by Singh -- whose portfolio at ACLU is to expose cases of torture and prisoner abuse in US detention -- and released in the name of ACLU Executive Director Anthony D Romero, pilloried Obama and his administration for their backtracking, virtually calling it a deep betrayal of his campaign promises.

It said, 'The Obama administration's adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration flies in the face of the President's stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government."

"This decision is particularly disturbing given the Justice Department's failure to initiative a criminal investigation of torture crimes under the Bush administration," the statement added.

It acknowledged that "it is true that these photos would be disturbing; the day we are no longer disturbed by such repugnant acts would be a sad one."

But it added, "In America, every fact and document gets known -- whether now or years from now. And when these photos do see the light of the day, the outrage will focus not only on the commission of torture by the Bush administration, but on the Obama administration's complicity in covering them up."

The statement said, "Any outrage related to these photos should be due not to their release but due to the very crime depicted in them. Only by looking squarely in the mirror, acknowledging the crimes of the past and achieving accountability can we move forward and ensure that these atrocities are not repeated."

For Singh, the sources said, Obama's decision was particularly painful since she had hoped that his administration would be uncompromising in going after those who had condoned tortureĀ  that had led to the prisoner abuse in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. She had hailed Obama's decision to make public the secret memos by the Bush administration's Justice Department that allegedly showed scant disregard for the Geneva Convention's guidelines about the treatment of prisoners of war.

While Obama's release of these memos sparked outrage among the likes of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who slammed the decision saying it undermined America's security, Dr Singh had strongly defended the President.

She said, "The Obama administration had a choice; whether it would cover up the Bush administration's crimes, thereby becoming complicit, or hold true to the President's pledges of transparency and accountability."

Singh believed that the President had "certainly delivered on transparency by releasing the memos. But transparency itself wasn't sufficient," and called on the Justice Department led by Attorney General Eric Holder to bring all those responsible to book.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who was questioned at the daily press briefing over Obama's volte-face, disclosed that the President had made the decision after meeting last week with "his legal team."

"The President told them that he did not feel comfortable with the release of the photos because he believes their release would endanger our troops," Gibbs informed.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said at his briefing that all the Generals, including Afghanistan's outgoing General David McKiernan, top allied commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno and Central Command Commander General David Petraeus, "have all voiced real concern about this. Particularly in Afghanistan, this is the last thing they need."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, acknowledged that he had been convinced by these commanders on the ground to persuade the Obama administration from going ahead with its earlier decision to release the photographs, because it would lead to massive anti-American sentiments, particularly at a time when it was launching an onslaught against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Gates said, "Perhaps what's motivated my own change of heart on this and perhaps influenced the President, is that our commanders, both General McKiernan and General Odierno, have expressed very serious reservations about this and their very, very great worry that release of the photographs will cost American lives. That was all it took for me."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC