Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bush agrees to new law specifically banning torture of detainees

Bush agrees to new law specifically banning torture of detainees: officialsWASHINGTON (AP) - After months of resistance, the White House has agreed to accept Senator John McCain's call for a law banning cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of foreign suspects in the war on terror, several congressional officials said Thursday.

Under the emerging deal, the CIA and other civilian interrogators would be given the same legal rights as currently guaranteed members of the military who are accused of breaking interrogation guidelines, these officials added. Those rules say the accused can defend themselves by arguing it was reasonable for them to believe they were obeying a legal order.

The congressional officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they did not want to pre-empt an expected announcement later in the day at the White House, possibly by President George W. Bush and McCain.

These officials also cautioned the agreement was encountering opposition in the House from Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. A spokesman for Hunter said negotiations were ongoing.

But Senator John Warner (R-Va.), Hunter's counterpart in the Senate, was said to be on board. And his spokesman, John Ullyot, said: "Senator Warner is meeting with Chairman Hunter to work out the refinements."

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, suggested a top-level official, perhaps even the president, would be talking about an agreement later Thursday.

A day earlier, the House endorsed the Senate-passed ban, agreeing that the United States needed to set uniform guidelines for the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror and to make clear that U.S. policy prohibits torture.

That put pressure on the White House at a time when the president finds himself defending his wartime policies daily amid declining public support for the Iraq war and his own low standing in opinion polls.

The White House at one point threatened a veto if the ban was included in legislation sent to the president's desk, and Vice-President Dick Cheney made an unusual personal appeal to all Republican senators to give an exemption to the CIA.

But congressional sentiment was overwhelmingly in favour of the ban, and McCain, a former navy pilot who was held and tortured for 5 1/2 years in Vietnam, adopted the issue.

The Republican maverick and the administration have been negotiating for weeks in search of a compromise, but it became increasingly clear that he, and not the administration, had the votes in Congress.

As passed by the Senate and endorsed by the House, McCain's amendment would prohibit "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" of anyone in U.S. government custody, regardless of where they are held. It also would require that service members follow procedures in the army field manual during interrogations of prisoners in Defence Department facilities.

In discussions with the White House, that language was altered to bring it into conformity with the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That says that anyone accused of violating interrogation rules can defend themselves if a "reasonable" person could have concluded they were following a lawful order.

Officials say the language also now includes a specific statement that those who violate the standards will not be afforded immunity from civil or criminal lawsuits.

In recent weeks, the administration had sought to add language that would offer protection from prosecution for interrogators accused of violating the provision. But McCain rejected that, arguing it would undermine the ban by not giving interrogators reason to follow the law.

Supporters of the provisions say they are needed to clarify current anti-torture laws in light of abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and allegations of misconduct by U.S. troops at the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.

They also say that passing such legislation will help the United States repair an image they say has been tarnished by the prisoner abuse scandal. The White House long has contended that the United States does not engage in torture.



© The Canadian Press, 2005

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