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Erasing the gray areas of prisoner abuse

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In politically polarized America, when 90 US senators agree on something, it should prompt attention. That's the case with an amendment to a defense spending bill that, more than a year after the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse story broke, bans US mistreatment of detainees.

Proposed by Republican senator John McCain of Arizona, the text realigns the US with accepted international standards against torture and is based on the Army's own field manual. It states that "no individual in the custody or under the physical control of the [US] Government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment."

Yet the Bush administration, wary of another 9/11, wants an exception for prisoners held by the CIA - presumably the most valuable of all captives. President Bush initially vowed to veto any legislation containing the McCain amendment. The senator said Friday he and his supporters will add the (unchanged) amendment to every key Senate bill until it becomes law.

The White House effort to legislate a loophole takes on added significance in light of last week's report by the Washington Post that the CIA has been operating a covert prison system overseas. Such a system - in which prisoners are held indefinitely, secretly, and without legal recourse - would be illegal in the US.

The Bush administration took a detrimental detour from the standards which McCain and his fellow senators seek to revive when it decided in 2002 that "enemy combatants" in the war on terrorism fall outside international standards.

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