Concerns Over Torture Ban Add-On

President Bush, right, shakes hands with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005 in Washington. The White House has agreed to McCain's proposal to ban cruel treatment of prisoners.
Human rights groups that praised a proposed ban on mistreating terrorism suspects warned on Friday that another provision lawmakers inserted in a final defense bill could lead to abuse at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, chief sponsor of the language affecting detainees held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, rejected that. He said interrogators who mistreat prisoners would not be granted immunity from prosecution for violating the ban.

On Thursday, President Bush reluctantly signed off on a proposal to bar cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terror suspects in U.S. custody. Sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ban and accompanying provision would standardize interrogation tactics for U.S. troops.

With that agreement reached, House and Senate bargainers worked Friday toward completing a bill setting Pentagon policy and another $453 billion in a wartime spending measure that includes $50 billion for the Iraq war. Congress hopes to send both to the president's desk within days, possibly Saturday.

Under legislation the Senate passed last month, military panels deciding whether to indefinitely detain terror-war suspects held at Guantanamo Bay would have been barred from considering evidence obtained through "undue coercion."

During Senate-House negotiations to write a final bill, lawmakers scrapped that and inserted language saying the military panels should review whether any information was obtained through "coercion" and assess the value of that information.

Graham, R-S.C., called the language a "check-and-balance system to look at the quality of the evidence" when panels are considering whether to continue holding an enemy combatant.

But human rights groups say the language could encourage interrogators to mistreat detainees because it does not explicitly bar the panels from relying on information gained from coercive interrogation techniques to keep someone detained indefinitely.

Elisa Massimino, the Washington director of Human Rights First, called the change "a grave mistake," given that "no civilized court in the world today considers evidence that was gleaned as a result of torture or cruel and inhuman treatment."

The change "intentionally and effectively undermined" the McCain ban and "could contribute to further abuses," added Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.