US Senate to hold hearings on rights of terror suspects

Sunday, Jun 05, 2005,Page 7

The continuing uproar over US treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib has a top Senate Republican looking at the need to clarify in law the rights of foreign detainees.

On the heels of Amnesty International calling the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "the gulag of our time," Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, will hold hearings this month on the treatment of foreign terrorism suspects at the detention camp, said an aide to the senator.

Earlier this week Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described Amnesty's characterization as "reprehensible."

But on Friday night, the Pentagon, for the first time, confirmed several incidents in which the Koran had been mishandled at Guantanamo Bay prison. The incidents included a soldier deliberately kicking the Muslim holy book, an interrogator stepping on a Koran, and a guard urinating near an air vent splashing urine on a detainee and his Koran.

The Pentagon is working on new guidelines for handling people captured during wartime, including an explicit ban on inhumane treatment. The 142-page draft document is being written by the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is not intended to set policy, but rather to provide the military with guidance to implement detainee policies set by civilian authorities.

Specter, according to an aide, is in the preliminary stages of drafting a bill to establish procedures for detentions and exploring the possibility of making the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court the venue for challenging them.

Amnesty International has called on the US to close its Guantanamo prison, where about 540 men are being held on suspicion they have links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime or Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror network.

While the human rights watchdog worries about Congress putting into law "enemy combatant" status, which it says is a category of prisoner not sanctioned by international and humanitarian treaties, it applauded Specter for looking into the issue.

"Any kind of sunshine would be a good antiseptic for this situation," said Jumana Musa, advocacy director for human rights and international justice at Washington's Amnesty International.

Specter's hearing will focus on the detention of enemy combatants at both Guantanamo and in the US, and whether trying them before military tribunals provides them adequate due process, the senator's aide said.

The Bush administration created the detainee category of "enemy combatant" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and applied it to members or associates of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The administration argues that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to suspected members of al-Qaeda -- a position spelled out in a January 2002 memo to President George W. Bush from then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who is now attorney general.

The Guantanamo camp, which began in January 2002 with the arrival of prisoners captured in Afghanistan, has been widely criticized. So far, only four detainees there have been charged with a crime, and their military trials have been stalled because of appeals in US courts.

The problems at Guantanamo were compounded by the 2004 revelations about mistreatment of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. Photographs taken by US military personnel and published around the world depicted scenes of sexual humiliation and physical abuse.

So far, only two US citizens have been designated as enemy combatants. Jose Padilla, a former gang member who was born in Brooklyn, New York, has been held since 2002 without being charged. Louisiana native Yaser Hamdi was released in October after the Justice Department said he no longer posed a threat to the US and no longer had any intelligence value. Hamdi, who was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2001, gave up his American citizenship and returned to his family in Saudi Arabia as conditions of his release.