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Published: Friday, 9/22/2006

Geneva: The last word in treatment of military prisoners

IN THE last presidential election, pundits called them "values" voters. They were people who supposedly valued the moral credentials of a candidate above the greater worth of the politician in, say, policy-making or problem-solving. If the office-seeker espoused the same moral bent of many single-issue voters on select controversies from gay marriage to abortion, support at the polls was practically guaranteed.

Values voters were relieved when George W. Bush reclaimed the moral high road for the republic after the hedonistic days of the Clinton administration. The painful chapter in U.S. history written by the previous president with his adulterous, deceitful ways couldn't end soon enough.

What Slick Willie did as leader of the free world was as bad as a married man lying about an extramarital affair. Swiping the presidential election in 2000 was a necessary means to restore the standards of law-abiding, God-fearing, values-driven Americans. The country could do a lot worse than putting a born-again Christian in power who espoused what many did and who promised to replace dishonor with noble enterprise. Right?

Answering in the affirmative is the fervent wish of everyone raised on truth, justice, and the American way, but the past won't permit it. Neither will the present tussle between leading Republicans on Capitol Hill and the Bush White House over how to bring suspected terrorists to trial.

Although a last-minute compromise appears to have been reached, the debate leading up to the agreement over amending federal law and re-interpreting parts of the Geneva Conventions was telling. It pitted Republican against Republican.

The voices opposing the administration were prominent GOP politicians, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

They were fighting what they considered a clear affront to America's respected values of fair play. Sens. John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham were key among those who argued that America's moral standards of common decency and due process were being threatened by the White House.

Those standards, they stressed, were intrinsically linked with Common Article 3 of the Geneva protections. It applies to wars other than those between two states and, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, covers the conflict with al-Qaeda.

Under Article 3, anyone tried for wartime offenses must appear before a "regularly constituted court" with "judicial guarantees recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."

Another key part of the provision, which the court also said the United States is obliged to follow, deals with how prisoners are handled in captivity. It bans torture and "outrages upon personal dignity, including humiliating and degrading treatment."

The Geneva prohibition on abusive prisoner treatment, broader than the detainee law initiated last year by Senator McCain, has long been upheld by its international signatories. That means regardless of who is involved to which degree in what war, the treaty is the last word in legal standards governing the treatment of military prisoners.

In past wars, even with the worst war criminals, the U.S. military has complied with the fundamental rights agreed upon in the treaty. Mr. McCain said America has prided itself on compliance as a matter of conscience and principle.

The captured have a right to confront their accusers in court. They are entitled to legal representation to challenge evidence and testimony obtained without coercion.

In 1949 the world gave its imprimatur to the legal criterion in the Geneva Conventions regarding the humane treatment of prisoners and their detention with due process. In 2006, the Bush Administration wanted to rewrite those rules to give legal cover to the CIA for "alternative" methods of interrogation on terrorist suspects that sound a lot like the kind of torture banned in the Geneva accords.

The President said the CIA program is vital to the war on terror. But torture by any other name is wrong, say those with firsthand knowledge, like Mr. McCain. The former POW in North Vietnam said anything that weakens international protections for detainees "would set an example to other countries, with less respect for basic human rights that they could issue their own legislative 'reinterpretations.'•" The risk to captured U.S. troops now and in the future is clear.

Those who argued that terrorist suspects don't deserve any rights or protections missed the point of Republicans who were trying to block White House efforts to relax the rule of law for detainees. It's not about them.

It's about the values that define us. The Bush values that espouse secret prisons, with interrogating "techniques," and years-long detention without trial, are not ours. America is better than modern-day Gulags, kangaroo courts, and trumped- up charges. Right?


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