Rumsfeld Criticizes Amnesty International

The Bush administration continues its sharp criticism of Amnesty International. The latest salvo came from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Wednesday. The group compared U.S. treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to conditions at a Soviet-era prison camp. Rumsfeld called the charge "reprehensible."

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The Bush administration has again sharply criticized Amnesty International for comparing the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay to a Soviet-era prison camp. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the charge made by the human rights group outlandish. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Amnesty International's annual report examines human rights abuses and how governments deal with those violations in a hundred and forty-nine countries, including the United States. Tucked within the pages of this year's report is a section titled National security and the `war on terror' in which Amnesty International criticizes the Bush administration's refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions to detainees at Guantanamo Bay. It talks about mounting evidence of torture and mistreatment of prisoners held at US detention centers around the world and it says there is a blatant disregard for international human rights and humanitarian law in the war on terror. Vice President Dick Cheney speaking on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Monday dismissed the report.

(Soundbite from "Larry King Live")

Vice President DICK CHENEY: Frankly I was offended by it. For Amnesty International to suggest that somehow the United States is a violator of human rights, I frankly just don't take them seriously.

NORTHAM: General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also weighed in on the weekend, calling the report absolutely irresponsible. On Tuesday, President Bush didn't mince his words about the report.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah. I'm aware of the Amnesty International report and it's absurd. It's an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world.

NORTHAM: Almost immediately, Amnesty International responded to the president's comments. William Schulz, the executive director for Amnesty International/USA, issued a statement saying, `What's absurd is the president's attempt to deny government policies to hold Guantanamo detainees indefinitely without charge or trial.' Schulz says something must be making the administration uncomfortable to provoke such a strong reaction.

Mr. WILLIAM SCHULZ (Executive Director, Amnesty International/USA): The administration doth protest too much. When was the last time that the president, vice president, secretary of State, secretary of Defense and General Myers all in the course of just a couple of days took on one small little organization.

NORTHAM: In fact, it was just two weeks ago when there was another full-court press by the administration after Newsweek ran a story about an interrogator flushing a copy of the Koran down the toilet. Newsweek came under a withering attack by administration officials. It retracted the story after it found it could not fully substantiate the facts. Last week, military officials admitted that there were some cases where military police and interrogators at Guantanamo had mishandled the Koran. The Amnesty report bases its conclusions in large part on interviews with former detainees from Afghanistan and Guantanamo, but Vice President Cheney said Guantanamo was a well-run camp where detainees were treated humanely.

Vice Pres. CHENEY: Occasionally there are allegations of mistreatment, but if you trace those back, in nearly every case, it turns out to come from somebody who had been inside and been released back to their home country and now were peddling lies about how they were treated.

NORTHAM: Amnesty's Schulz says that for several years, his organization has been sending the government reports, letters and concerns about detainee abuse at US detention centers overseas. This one caught fire, because on the day the report was released, Irene Kahn, Amnesty International's secretary-general, called Guantanamo `the gulag of our times.' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that charge is reprehensible.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): Most would define a gulag as where the Soviet Union kept millions in forced labor concentration camps. To compare the United States and Guantanamo Bay to such atrocities cannot be excused.

NORTHAM: But Amnesty's Schulz agreed there is a difference in scale and that detainees in US prison camps are not starved or worked to death, but Schulz says there's where the differences end.

Mr. SCHULZ: Because the US is maintaining an archipelago around the world of detention centers, many of them secret, at which prisoners are being held incommunicado without access to a legal system, a judicial system just as they were in the gulag.

NORTHAM: Schulz says Amnesty International will not back down from its report. The organization is calling on the Bush administration to hold a fully independent investigation into abuse and to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the matter.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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