The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military's
most senior leaders, want Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to approve new guidelines
that will formalize the George W. Bush administration's policy of imprisoning
so-called enemy combatants without the protections of the Geneva Conventions
and enable the Pentagon to legally hold "ghost detainees," a human
rights group is charging.
In a letter to Rumsfeld, advocacy group Human
Rights Watch (HRW) said, "Denying the protections of the Geneva Conventions
to persons apprehended in the global war on terror is unsupported as a matter
of law, represents a radical deviation from the standards that have traditionally
guided U.S. military operations, and places U.S. service members and civilians
detained by enemy forces at greater risk of mistreatment."
The new memorandum, now in final draft, is known as the "Joint Doctrine
for Detainee Operations: Joint Publication 3-63," and is dated March 23,
"If the draft memorandum is approved, it will formalize 'enemy combatant'
as a class of prisoner that the Bush administration says has no protections
under the Geneva Conventions," HRW attorney John Sifton told IPS. "There
are no categories of prisoners unprotected by one or another of the Geneva Convention."
An additional concern, he said, is that the draft memorandum would give the
military authority to classify as an enemy combatant anyone whose name appears
on a government watchlist.
"The proposed watchlist includes a wide variety of groups, from Sikhs
to followers of Peru's Shining Path, and potentially hundreds of thousands of
people named Ahmed or Mohamed. This is a huge and radical departure that could
further erode the rule of law."
The letter to Rumsfeld, signed by HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth, says
if the Defense Department acts on the new guidelines, "U.S. military personnel
may be committing grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and placing themselves
at risk of prosecution for war crimes."
The organization argues that the U.S. government's decision in January 2002
to "disavow the applicability of the Geneva Conventions in the global war
on terror" has been at the root of detainee abuse scandals in Iraq, Afghanistan,
and Guantánamo Bay.
HRW says the new rules "will send a message to the world that the Geneva
Conventions are not law, but mere policies that can be changed according to
tastes of a particular government."
This in turn would have "a profound impact on future armed conflicts between
states and the soldiers and civilians affected by them, including Americans."
The new policies include a directive that would allow the military to hold enemy
combatants as "ghost detainees" by denying them access to the International
Committee of the Red Cross, HRW says.
They also contain overly broad criteria for designating as an enemy combatant
anyone who appears on a government list that contains common names and aliases
shared by tens of thousands of persons worldwide.
The Pentagon document has not yet been publicly released, and is to be submitted
to Rumsfeld for approval on April 16.
The Defense Department declined to comment on the draft memorandum or the HRW
letter to Rumsfeld. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two decisions
related to the detention of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In the
first case, the justices ruled that detainees had the right to due process and
must be allowed to contest their imprisonment before a "neutral decision-maker."
The second case confirmed that U.S. courts have jurisdiction to hear such challenges.
The Defense Department then created special military tribunals to determine
which Guantanamo prisoners posed threats to the U.S. These bodies have been
criticized for denying detainees the most basic due process, including attorney-client
Little information about those held at Guantánamo has been released
through official government channels. But stories of 60 or more of the prisoners
are spelled out in detail in thousands of pages of transcripts filed in U.S.
District Court in Washington, where detainees have filed lawsuits challenging
publicized last week are giving dozens of Guantánamo detainees what the
Bush administration had sought to keep from public view: identities and voices.
The government is holding about 550 terrorist suspects at its naval base in
Cuba. An additional 214 have been released since the facility opened in January
2002 some into the custody of their native governments, others freed
The detainees appeared last year before the three-officer military tribunals,
which, after quick reviews, confirmed their status as "enemy combatants"
who could be held indefinitely.
In the transcripts, one terror suspect asked his U.S. military judge: ''Is
it possible to see the evidence in order to refute it?"
In another case, Guantanamo prisoner Feroz Ali Abbasi was ejected from his
hearing for repeatedly challenging the legality of his detention.
''I have the right to speak," Abbasi insisted in transcripts reviewed
by the Associated Press.
''No, you don't," the tribunal president replied.
''I don't care about international law," the tribunal president told Abbasi
just before he was taken from the room. ''I don't want to hear the words 'international
law' again. We are not concerned with international law."
(Inter Press Service)