NEW YORK - A coalition of civil rights groups launched a campaign on Tuesday urging presidential candidates to sign an "American Freedom Pledge" rejecting torture, detention without trial and warrantless wire-tapping.
Around 130,000 people have signed a petition of the American Freedom Campaign, which bills itself as a bipartisan effort to defend democracy from "abuses of power" under U.S. President George W. Bush.
"By trading our liberties for a false sense of security, the president has granted himself the power of tyrants," said Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal group that has frequently challenged Bush's counterterrorism policies in court.
The White House has denied accusations that it condones torture and repudiated internal administration documents recommending a definition of torture that critics called extreme.
Some Republican presidential candidates have called for depriving terrorism suspects of access to lawyers or endorsed interrogation techniques such as simulated drowning, or "waterboarding."
The campaign is backed by global watchdog Human Rights Watch, author Naomi Wolf and MoveOn.org, an Internet-based activist group that has campaigned against the Iraq war and on issues such as health care.
Moveon.org co-founder Wes Boyd said the campaign aimed to show politicians, especially Democrats, that there was public support for principles of civil liberties. "Democrats often fall victim to the charge that they're not security-focused, that they're soft. We believe that's nonsense," he said.
Boyd likened the campaign to a movement launched earlier this year by the "American Freedom Agenda," a conservative legal group which promotes limits to government power.
"It is going on both sides of the aisle," Boyd told Reuters. He also pointed to Republican candidate Ron Paul, a libertarian longshot who has been outspoken in criticizing Bush and called for closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison.
Organizers hope to attract hundreds of thousands to sign the pledge. They will use it to exert pressure in Congress, for example, in a bid to reassert the right for detainees held without trial at Guantanamo to challenge their detention in court.
The online pledge (http://www.americanfreedomcampaign.org) reads: "We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal remedy, we do not tap people's phones and e-mails without a court order, and above all we do not give any president unchecked power."
"I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from assault by any president."
Freedom Campaign coalition co-founder David Fenton said letters inviting candidates to sign the pledge had only just been sent out so no responses had yet been received.
© Reuters 2007