Senate Studies Treatment of Detainees, Koran

The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on whether foreign detainees are being treated fairly. The hearing comes after widespread reports — some of which remain in dispute — about desecration of the Koran by U.S. soldiers at Guantanamo.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee probed an issue that has frayed political nerves both here and abroad. The panel summoned civilian and military officials as well as legal experts, and it asked them to explain what is happening with the hundreds of foreign prisoners detained indefinitely in places such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

By shining a spotlight on how detainees are being handled, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter probably scored no points today with fellow Republicans in the Bush administration. But Specter pointed out that the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to make policy over what are called `captures on land and water.' He noted, though, that Congress has so far failed to do much of anything on these detentions.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Judiciary Committee Chair): It may be that it's too hot to handle for Congress, may be that it's too complex to handle for Congress, or it may be that Congress wants to sit back as Congress, we, customarily do, awaiting some action with a court no matter how long it takes.

WELNA: Specter said recent court rulings on detainees' rights both affirming and denying them amount to what he called a `crazy quilt.' He said he decided against calling for detainees' cases to be heard by special courts that normally meet in secret. Specter warned, though, that he may seek to limit the amount of time courts can leave detainees' cases unresolved.

The panel's top concern was clearly the more than 500 detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay. Ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy heaped scorn on an effort earlier this week by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter to defend that facility by displaying food served to detainees there.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Producing props of chicken dinners and such, seeming to argue this is more a Club Med than a prison--let's get real. These people have been locked up for three years, no end in sight, and no process to lead us out of there.

WELNA: Leahy called the Guantanamo facility `an international embarrassment' as well as `a festering threat to national security.' Sitting before the committee was Army General Thomas Hemingway, a top official with the military commissions President Bush set up to try detainees. Leahy asked Hemingway if there's a plan for how much longer people will be held at Guantanamo with no charges.

General THOMAS HEMINGWAY (US Army): Senator, we have charges against four people. I can't tell you how long unprivileged belligerent is going to be held because I don't know how long this war is going to last. I do know that we are in compliance with the law by holding them.

Sen. LEAHY: Most say that the war will last for throughout our lifetime. Does that mean we could hold them that long without any charges?

Gen. HEMINGWAY: I think that we can hold them as long as the conflict endures.

WELNA: Hemingway said so-called combatant status review tribunals had, in six months' time, reviewed the status of every detainee at Guantanamo and found that all but 38 of them deserved to stay on there. But the Judiciary panel also heard from one attorney who said the tribunals used only confessions obtained through torture of his client in Egypt to deem him an enemy combatant. And Navy lawyer Charles Swift, who defended another detainee, told the panel the review process is a sham.

Mr. CHARLES SWIFT (Navy Lawyer): Military commission under the rules doesn't have the ability to make any final ruling. They have to send it to General Hemingway for legal review. But he's also here as the prosecutor. He's already made up his mind. We can't say that this is an independent and fair process. It's not befitting of America.

WELNA: And New York University law Professor Stephen Schulhofer said the military commissions are not even necessary.

Professor STEPHEN SCHULHOFER (New York University): In matters of interrogation, detention and trial, we have found no reason to think that traditional institutions aren't up to the task.

WELNA: Such assessments did not go over well with Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): This country is not systematically abusing prisoners. We have no policy to do so, and it's wrong to suggest that, and it puts our soldiers at risk who are in this battle because we sent them there. And we have an obligation to them.

WELNA: Sessions declared some of the detainees need to be executed. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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