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Human rights groups criticizes Pentagon proposal on detainees

WASHINGTON—A human rights group has criticized proposed Pentagon guidelines for handling military detainees, saying the new rules might allow the military to deny some detainees their rights under the Geneva Conventions.

The proposed guidelines are aimed at preventing the abuse of U.S. military detainees that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But Human Rights Watch said the proposal could lead to abuses that amount to war crimes under international law.

"We applaud efforts by the Pentagon to create a joint doctrine for detainee operations," said John Sifton, an expert on military affairs and counterterrorism at the New York-based rights protection group. "But this proposal has a number of parts which are extremely troubling to us."

Lt. Col. John Skinner, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday that the draft doctrine was "a further reflection of our commitment to professional detention operations."

He strongly denied that the draft doctrine would allow inhumane treatment under any circumstances. "It spells out very clearly the non-negotiable humane treatment of detainees. There is absolutely no discussion, no debate, on that here," Skinner said.

The draft, dated March 23, is called a Joint Doctrine for Detainee Operations. Staff at the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared the draft, which is now being reviewed and could be changed. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Richard B. Myers, hasn't yet approved it.

"The challenges of today's security environment and the nature of the enemy requires clear operational and strategic guidance for detainee operations in a joint environment," the draft reads.

In a letter sent Thursday to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth strongly criticized the draft doctrine.

"Instead of correcting current violations of the Geneva Conventions, these guidelines would shred the conventions further," he said in a written statement released the same day.

Specifically, the guidelines would allow the military to classify some detainees as "enemy combatants" who aren't entitled to Geneva Conventions protections, a practice already under way. That would sanction such illegal practices as inhumane treatment and secretly holding some of these people as "ghost detainees," meaning they would be unknown even to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch said.

"The creation of an entire classification of detainees who exist outside of the Geneva Conventions protections is itself a violation of the Geneva Conventions," Sifton said. "There are no people who fall outside the conventions."

The conventions set standards for housing, medical care, clothing and other treatment for prisoners of war and other people detained in armed conflicts. They also give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisoners and other detainees.

The latest Pentagon review of detainee abuse cases, released in March, found that about 30 people had been held as ghost detainees. Human Rights Watch said that when detainees are held secretly, there's a greater temptation for abuse because it can go undetected.

The Pentagon has said such detentions no longer occur.

Human Rights Watch also attacked a provision of the doctrine that states that the humane treatment of enemy combatants may be limited by "military necessity."

Another provision, however, says that international law and Defense Department policy prohibits inhumane treatment and that "there is no military necessity exception to this humane treatment mandate."

The contradictory statements may be an oversight, Sifton said. Even so, the presence of the "military necessity" exception is a "very revealing mistake," he said.

"The Pentagon has gotten into a habit, as have administration officials, of limiting their obligations by this so-called military necessity," Sifton said.

One expert on international law and human rights said the draft doctrine, although intended to resolve ambiguities and contradictions in the military's handling of detainees, is unlikely to silence critics.

"It seems to me that it's designed precisely to continue those ambiguities," said Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "To me that is the most troubling aspect of it."

The U.S. military has detained people captured during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq. It is holding about 540 people in Cuba, about 9,600 in Iraq and about 600 in Afghanistan, according to the Defense Department.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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