US terror law 'could violate international treaties'

Washington's new anti-terrorism law could end up violating international treaties protecting detainees, with some provisions denying suspects the right to a fair trial, a key UN rights expert said today.

Martin Scheinin, the United Nations' expert on protecting human rights in the fight against terrorism, said the Military Commissions Act signed into law earlier this month by US President George Bush contains provisions "incompatible" with US obligations to adhere to treaties on human rights and humanitarian law.

"One of the most serious aspects of this legislation is the power of the president to declare anyone, including US citizens, without charge as an 'unlawful enemy combatant' - a term unknown in international humanitarian law," said Scheinin, a legal expert from Finland.

As a result, he said, those detainees are subject to the jurisdiction of a military commission composed of military officers - rather than a civilian court of law.

He also deplored the denial of the habeas corpus rights of foreigners - including legal, permanent US residents - to challenge the legality of their detention, "in manifest contradiction with" the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty the US ratified in 1992.

Another concern, Scheinin said, is the denial of detainees' rights to see evidence that could exonerate them if the evidence is deemed classified. That, he said, "severely impedes the right to a fair trial."

A spokeswoman for the US mission to international organisations in Geneva said the law was written to specifically address those concerns. Brooks Robinson said the law was written "in consultation with and in response to concerns by our allies and partners."

She also said US State Department legal adviser John Bellinger addressed the concerns last week.

"The only thing that the government is not required to turn over is evidence ... or information that is in the government's files about the individual," Bellinger told reporters in Washington on October 19.

"But if it's not used against the accused, they don't have to turn it over. So the government is not required essentially to turn over its file drawers about every bit of information it knows about the accused."

Bellinger also said then that if there is "evidence that might tend to show that he's innocent of the crime, whether that evidence is used in any way, the government is required to turn it over to him."

"The accused will be present at all times during the trial to hear the evidence against him," he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, also has criticised the new law, raising "concerns and questions" over whether it complies with the universally accepted rules on the conduct of warfare.

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