WASHINGTON – A senior Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, urged Congress on Wednesday to clarify prisoners’ rights at Guantanamo Bay, decrying a “crazy quilt” of legal decisions about the military’s handling of suspected terrorists.
Other Republicans on Specter’s Judiciary Committee were divided over whether the Bush administration’s practices were satisfactory. Military officers and Justice Department officials defended the treatment of suspects at the detention center on a U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
“We’re holding them humanely,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Hemingway, a legal adviser to the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, in Sheffield, England, for a meeting of G8 interior ministers, said Wednesday the Bush administration has discussed whether it should stop holding suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
“That’s a question that is evaluated, I would say, quite often,” Gonzales told reporters.
Critics – mostly human-rights groups and Democrats – have long accused the administration of unjustly detaining suspects at Guantanamo. Amnesty International recently compared it to Soviet-era gulags and some Republicans have questioned whether it should remain open.
The Senate panel convened to wade into the complicated system in place to detain, interrogate and, if warranted, prosecute foreigners suspected of having links to Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime or the al Qaeda terror network.
The administration calls the Guantanamo prisoners “enemy combatants” who are entitled to fewer legal protections that those afforded to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Some detainees have been held for three years without charges brought against them.
The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have weighed in on detainees’ rights, but they have issued conflicting opinions.
“It’s a genuine crazy quilt to try to figure out where the due process rights lie,” said Specter, R-Pa.
Military and Justice Department witnesses testified that extraordinary steps are being taken to protect prisoners’ rights and process their cases.
To ensure that they weren’t mistakenly classified as enemy combatants, each case goes through a rigorous process in which all evidence is looked at and detainees get a formal hearing before a review panel, the officials said.
Of the 558 given hearings at Guantanamo, 520 were declared “properly classified” as enemy combatants. And 23 of the remaining 38 have been released, Justice Department officials said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee’s senior Democrat, called the detention center “an international embarrassment to our nation, to our ideals and it remains a festering threat to our security.”
Leahy added: “This policy on detainees is clearly not working.”
Republicans and Democrats pressed witnesses on the pace of prosecutions.
“This seems to be a horribly slow process,” said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio.