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Kenneth T. Walsh / US News | October 13 2006

U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays was under fire yesterday after saying in a debate earlier this week that the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison was not torture but rather a "sex ring" involving National Guard troops.

Amnesty International officials and Shays' challengers in the 4th District said it was absurd for the Republican incumbent to call the acts at the Iraqi prison anything but torture.

"This is outrageous for a sitting congressman who was shown pictures (of Abu Ghraib) that were not even available to the public because they were supposed to be more provocative," said Joshua Rubenstein, Northeast regional director for Amnesty International. "The photographs did not only depict humiliating and degrading treatment of prisoners. They showed prisoners who were killed."

During the debate Wednesday night at Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, Shays, R-Bridgeport, was asked what the government should do to restore the country's moral image in the world after accusations of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

"Now I've seen what happened in Abu Ghraib, and Abu Ghraib was not torture," Shays said according to a transcript provided by Democratic challenger Diane Farrell's campaign and confirmed by others who attended the debate. "It was outrageous, outrageous involvement of National Guard troops from (Maryland) who were involved in a sex ring and they took pictures of soldiers who were naked. And they did other things that were just outrageous. But it wasn't torture."

Shays defended his comments yesterday, saying he doesn't doubt that there has been torture at other prisons, but not at Abu Ghraib.

"I saw probably 600 pictures of really gross, perverted stuff," Shays said. "The bottom line was it was sex. . . . It wasn't primarily about torture."

Shays defined torture as anything that could cause mental or physical pain or sleep depravation.

Asked about pictures showing mistreatment of detainees mentioned by Amnesty International, Shays said he did not see those images and "we also don't know where those could have been from."

From May 2004 to September 2005, seven soldiers from Abu Ghraib were convicted in courts martial, sentenced to federal prison and dishonorably discharged from service.

The charges included dereliction of duty, maltreatment, aggravated assault and battery. No one has been charged with murder.

Farrell, who did not initially respond to Shays' comments Wednesday because she was "thinking and formulating my own answer to the question," said yesterday that there was torture at Abu Ghraib.

"For Chris to say it was a sex ring is to minimize what happened," said Farrell, noting that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the acts "rape and murder." "Chris knows it was certainly more than a sex ring."

Libertarian candidate Phil Maymin challenged Shays on his Abu Ghraib statements Wednesday and continued to disagree with him yesterday.

"You know torture when you see it," Maymin said. "It was just degrading. It was torture."

Green Party candidate Richard Duffee, who did not participate in the debate but attended it, said plenty of evidence points to torture at Abu Ghraib.

"It's legal fraud to say it's not torture," Duffee said. Shays is "just playing with words."

But from a legal standpoint, Shays may be accurate when he says there was no torture at Abu Ghraib, said Richard Wilson, director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut.

"There is a very fine line between cruel and inhumane and degrading treatment and torture," Wilson said. "A number of different courts would say a number of different things about it."

But that doesn't make what happened at Abu Ghraib right, Wilson said.

"We still have to denounce what happened, and it can go on again," he said. "And what does it serve by not calling it 'torture.' "


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