GENEVA -- Washington's new anti-terrorism law could end up violating international treaties protecting detainees, with some provisions denying suspects the right to a fair trial, a key U.N. rights expert said Friday.
Martin Scheinin, the United Nations' expert on protecting human rights in the fight against terrorism, said the Military Commissions Act signed into law earlier this month by U.S. President George W. Bush contains provisions "incompatible" with U.S. obligations to adhere to treaties on human rights and humanitarian law.
Martin Scheinin, U.N.Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, speaks to the media in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2006. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
"One of the most serious aspects of this legislation is the power of the president to declare anyone, including U.S. citizens, without charge as an 'unlawful enemy combatant' - a term unknown in international humanitarian law," said Scheinin, a legal expert from Finland.
As a result, he said, those detainees are subject to the jurisdiction of a military commission composed of military officers - rather than a civilian court of law.
He also deplored the denial of the habeas corpus rights of foreigners - including legal, permanent U.S. residents - to challenge the legality of their detention, "in manifest contradiction with" the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty the U.S. ratified in 1992.
Another concern, Scheinin said, is the denial of detainees' rights to see evidence that could exonerate them if the evidence is deemed classified. That, he said, "severely impedes the right to a fair trial."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to international organizations in Geneva said the law was written to specifically address those concerns. Brooks Robinson said the law was written "in consultation with and in response to concerns by our allies and partners."
She also said U.S. State Department legal adviser John B. Bellinger III addressed the concerns last week.
"The only thing that the government is not required to turn over is evidence ... or information that is in the government's files about the individual," Bellinger told reporters in Washington on Oct. 19. "But if it's not used against the accused, they don't have to turn it over. So the government is not required essentially to turn over its file drawers about every bit of information it knows about the accused."
Bellinger also said then that if there is "evidence that might tend to show that he's innocent of the crime, whether that evidence is used in any way, the government is required to turn it over to him."
"The accused will be present at all times during the trial to hear the evidence against him," he said.
Bellinger disputed that "unlawful combatant" was a Bush administration invention, and said respected European legal experts had been using the term for decades to refer to "individuals who fight in a conflict but who do so in an unlawful way so that they are not benefiting from prisoner of war status."
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, also has criticized the new law, raising "concerns and questions" over whether it complies with the universally accepted rules on the conduct of warfare.
Scheinin said he offered to visit the United States more than a year ago and that he hopes the government will invite him "in the very near future" so that he can discuss the issue with U.S. officials.
In addition to his "numerous concerns" with the new law, he said his reservations also include the Patriot Act, CIA secret detention centers act and the sending of U.S. detainees to other countries.
© Copyright 2006 Associated Press