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Gitmo gets Geneva protections

In the wake of a Supreme Court ruling, the White House formally grants Geneva Convention status to people it is detaining in its fight against terrorism.

Compiled from Times wires
Published July 12, 2006

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, bowing to court edict and political pressure, guaranteed the basic protections of the Geneva Conventions to captives in the war on terrorism and asked lawmakers Tuesday to restore the military tribunals now in limbo.

As senators took up the question of how suspected terrorists should be treated and tried, the administration said it has ordered a review of military detention practices to make sure they comply with Geneva standards.

A memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England to all branches of the armed forces, released Tuesday, instructed them to ensure that all Defense Department policies, practices and directives comply with Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions governing the humane treatment of prisoners.

The administration had not granted Geneva Convention status to the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere, saying they were not from a recognized nation, were not captured in uniform and did not observe traditional rules of war. The people apprehended in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other zones in the war on terrorism have been classified as "unlawful combatants."

The Supreme Court last month invalidated the tribunals handling these cases, ruling they defied international law and had not been authorized by Congress.

The administration sought remedies on both fronts Tuesday, revisiting its prisoner guarantees and appealing to senators to revive the tribunals with legislation. Some critics have suggested the detainees should be tried by military courts-martial instead, an idea opposed by President Bush.

The Senate is unlikely to act until the fall, setting up a pitched debate over the issue at the height of the campaign for control of Congress.

The practical effect of the memo on interrogation techniques, detention conditions and trial procedures was unclear.

Officials at the White House and Pentagon did not say how, if at all, the treatment of terror detainees would be different under the Geneva Conventions. The government has long insisted that its treatment of these captives has been in compliance with the Geneva treaties all along, even though it has refused to apply them as a matter of law.

And in fact, when the Guantanamo detention center was established in 2002, President Bush had ordered that detainees be treated "humanely, and to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva."

So, White House spokesman Tony Snow said, the Pentagon memo was not really a reversal of policy because detainees were already being treated humanely.

Also, a top Pentagon lawyer insisted, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, that the memo "doesn't indicate a shift in policy."

"It just announces the decision of the court, and with specificity as to the decision, as it related to the commission process," Daniel J. Dell'Orto, the principal deputy counsel for the Defense Department, told the committee.

Steven Bradbury, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, said during a Senate hearing that Article 3 is ambiguous and its use "will create a degree of uncertainty for those who fight to defend us from terrorist attack."

Even so, he said, the Supreme Court imposed a standard "that we must now interpret and implement."

For all the emphasis on Geneva protections, the memo did not revoke Bush's directive in February 2002 that "common Article 3 of Geneva does not apply to either al-Qaida or Taliban detainees."

Instead, it noted that the Supreme Court has determined Article 3 "applies as a matter of law to the conflict with al-Qaida" and said existing standards and procedures, except for the military commissions, already should be in compliance the article.

Administration officials testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee asked for legislation to codify tribunal procedures so they pass constitutional muster and give the U.S. flexibility to deal with an unconventional foe.

"We would like to see Congress act quickly to establish a solid statutory basis for the military commission process, so that trials of captured al-Qaida terrorists can move forward again," Bradbury said.

Senators were told that some 1,000 suspected terrorists are in U.S. detention around the world, including about 450 at Guantanamo. Prisoners from the Iraq war are already dealt with under the Geneva Conventions.

Guantanamo has been a flashpoint for both U.S. and international debate over the treatment of detainees without trial and over allegations of torture, denied by U.S. officials. Even U.S. allies have criticized the facility and process.

The camp came under condemnation after it opened more than four years ago, when pictures showed prisoners kneeling, shackled and being herded into wire cages.

Snow insisted that all U.S. detainees have been treated humanely. Still, he said, "We want to get it right."

Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified July 12, 2006, 05:31:20]

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