WASHINGTON — Human rights defenders urged the Senate to reject a deal between President George W. Bush and Republican senators that would strip hundreds of detainees of habeas corpus rights and leave the door open for use of evidence obtained by torture in military tribunals at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The House passed the measure Sept. 27 on a mostly party-line vote, with many Democrats sharply condemning it. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said, “This bill is everything we don’t believe in.” The Senate was expected to vote before the weekend.
In an open letter to all members of Congress, VFP President David Cline charged that the legislation is an attempt by administration officials “to protect themselves from prosecution” for war crimes “even as they prosecute enlisted men and women for actions committed under their command in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.”
Cline added, “It is the highest form of hypocrisy to claim to support our troops while allowing the policymakers and planners of a war of choice that we believe is illegal, immoral and unjust to change existing law to protect themselves from prosecution for committing war crimes after ordering the troops to war.” Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others, he charged, “are trying to change the law because they believe they have broken the law.”
Cline called on Congress to “reject any effort to weaken the 1996 War Crimes Act,” and “initiate impeachment proceedings against President Bush and Vice President Cheney for the war crimes they have committed.”
Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine staged a noisy protest against Bush’s attempt to rewrite the Geneva Conventions to allow coerced testimony and use of secret evidence in military trials of alleged terrorists.
But the dissident senators have agreed to a “compromise” that gives Bush much of what he wants. Their strategy has been to convince Bush to drop his efforts to nullify Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which is international law, and to pursue his objectives instead by nullifying sections of the War Crimes Act of 1996, which is U.S. law.
Lisa Hajjar, professor of law and society at the University of California-Santa Barbara, told the World in a phone interview, “This legislation has been billed as a compromise when in fact it is a complete capitulation to the demands of the Bush administration, which seeks to formalize the torture and cruel treatment practices that the CIA has been using and make them the new standards.”
Part of the motivation of this bill, she added, “is to override the Supreme Court in the Hamdan case. The Supreme Court ruled that violations of the Geneva Conventions are criminal offenses and therefore punishable. This legislation would undo that decision. It would make it much harder to prosecute U.S. officials for past crimes.”
All people of conscience, she said, “should get on the phone to their senators and voice outrage at how much damage is being done to the rule of law by this legislation.” She pointed out that the Democrats had kept quiet, allowing the Republican senators to take the lead. But now, she said, “the Democrats should speak out against this deal.”
Christopher H. Pyle, a professor at Mount Holyoke College and author of “The President, Congress and the Constitution,” told the World that top Bush administration officials “have been in a panic ever since the Supreme Court ruled last June that they are bound by the Geneva Conventions. They could be prosecuted.”
He pointed out that the McCain-Warner-Graham bill does not expressly forbid any of the brutal practices such as “water-boarding” in which detainees are made to feel they are drowning. “But it does retroactively absolve administration officials of legal responsibility for past war crimes.”
Furthermore, it denies habeas corpus or due process rights for innocent victims of kidnapping, detention and torture such as Canadian citizen Maher Arar, he said.
The bill expressly strips the courts of jurisdiction over the military tribunals and denies detainees like Arar “any right to challenge their captivity in court. And it permits the use of evidence obtained by torture in military tribunals by camouflaging it as hearsay testimony.”
He too stressed that the aim of the deal is to immunize Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others from war crimes prosecution. “The fix is in,” he said.
The high court “didn’t just declare the military tribunals illegal. It held that the Geneva Conventions protect all detainees in the ‘war on terrorism,’ which meant that anyone who abused prisoners, or authorized their abuse, was vulnerable to prosecution as a war criminal. The torture and abuse were not random acts by guards and interrogators. They were part of a deliberate administration policy that began in November 2001 when President George W. Bush authorized military tribunals that were specifically designed to admit evidence obtained by torture.”