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Lawyers May Condemn Abuse

The nation's largest lawyers group plans to consider a strongly worded condemnation of the Bush administration's treatment of overseas detainees as well as recommendations that would make it easier to prosecute members of the U.S. military and civilians who torture prisoners.

The subject will be debated during the 400,000-member American Bar Association's summer meeting, which begins Thursday in Atlanta. Other proposals address abortion rights, human cloning and prison sentences.

"The use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by United States personnel in the interrogation of prisoners captured in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts has brought shame on the nation and undermined our standing in the world," the resolution says.

An ABA report says administration lawyers seemed to justify unacceptable interrogation methods when advising the president and that apparently contributed to a "widespread pattern of abusive detention methods."

The resolution is a response to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and concerns about the treatment of foreign detainees at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President Bush has said that he never ordered torture of prisoners. Government officials have said that abuses were the work of rule-breaking soldiers and a few officers.

On Wednesday, a pretrial hearing was held for one of seven Army reservists charged in the Abu Ghraib scandal. The government sought to portray Pfc. Lynndie England as one of a few out-of-control reservists who took it upon themselves to photograph detainees in humiliating poses at the prison. England's lawyers have contended she was acting on orders from higher-ups to break down prisoners for questioning.

Witnesses at the pretrial hearing portrayed the 21-year-old reservist as a disobedient soldier who didn't do her work well because she spent time with her prison-guard boyfriend at Abu Ghraib prison.

Her supervisor, Specialist Matthew Bolinger, testified by telephone from Hampton Roads. He said England was repeatedly disciplined for sneaking into the prison's fortified area to visit her boyfriend.

Those charges are being heard in military court. The ABA proposal would recommend strengthening the federal anti-torture law, making it easier to prove criminal charges in federal court. The recommendation also says the law should apply to acts committed in the United States, not just those overseas.

Not all lawyers support the proposal, which will come up for a vote near the end of the ABA's six-day meeting.

"I think it goes too far," said Scott Silliman, director of Duke University's Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. "There's always this march to get one's voice heard as quickly as possible. I just think this one's a little premature."

David Rivkin Jr., a Washington lawyer who served in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, said, "It doesn't advance the debate at all. It just grandstands."

He said the focus should be on legal and policy decisions that determine what interrogation techniques are appropriate for getting information that protects Americans.

But Eugene Fidell, a specialist in military law and president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said the recommendations will help bring attention to problems. One proposal includes suggesting the creation of a nonpartisan commission to study U.S. detention and interrogation practices.

"What we need is a full account instead of a piecemeal dribbling out of facts in a way that makes it impossible to get a sense of the overall picture," Fidell said.

Fidell also supports a call for the president to increase the maximum punishment in military court for cruelty and maltreatment. He said the maximum is a year in jail and a dishonorable discharge, and "increasing it would send a message to our troops, our allies, our adversaries that we're very serious about this."

Other policy proposals to be voted on by the ABA's leaders would:

  • address the legal status of human clones and ensure they have full rights without taking a stand on the issue. The resolution restates support for therapeutic cloning.
  • deal with concerns that doctors and hospitals are withholding information on abortion options. The ABA has gone on record in support of a woman's right to have an abortion.
  • urge the elimination of some mandatory minimum prison sentences and appeal to governors and the president to pardon more deserving prisoners.

    The ABA is nonpartisan, but many conservatives view the group as liberal-leaning.

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