In what would be a key change in U.S. policy, the Pentagon may formally require military prosecutors to observe a U.N. convention against torture in their use of evidence during tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
Such a move would represent a formal bar on the use of any evidence obtained by torture in prisoner tribunals at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, where the United States has held hundreds of foreign terrorism suspects since early 2002.
Washington has faced steady criticism over the Guantanamo camp from the United Nations, rights groups and some foreign governments. Former detainees have charged U.S. authorities use torture at the camp, which the Pentagon denies.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said on Wednesday the administration up to now has relied on prosecutors to ensure that their cases before tribunals, known as military commissions, reflect President George W. Bush’s stated policy that the United States not condone torture.
“Up to this point, it’s not believed to have been necessary because of the way in which prosecutors and the commission members have been able to proceed in their trials,” Whitman told reporters.
“But it is something that is being looked at as a possible way to eliminate any doubt that the Convention Against Torture, Article 15, is understood and is applicable to these prosecutions,” he said. “The department is taking a look at it and may issue a separate instruction on it.”
Article 15 of the U.N Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment requires states to ensure that evidence invoked in proceedings not be the result of torture.
But Air Force Maj. Jane Boomer, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told reporters at Guantanamo earlier this month that current tribunal rules hypothetically could allow the use of evidence obtained through torture because such evidence was not explicitly banned.
“It is not specified in the rulebook, period,” she said at a March 2 news conference at the camp.
However, she said such evidence could not be admitted if it would deny the accused a fair trial.
Bush authorized the military tribunals after the September 11 attacks, but the system has come under fire from human rights activists and some military lawyers as fundamentally unfair to defendants.
U.S. officials have vigorously and repeatedly denied any claim that they engage in torture.
But word of the possible policy change, which some officials expect soon, comes a month after five United Nations special envoys called for closing the Guantanamo prison in a report that accused the United States of violating bans on torture, arbitrary detention and the right to fair trial.
Most of the roughly 500 inmates at Guantanamo have been held for four years without trial.
Ten Guantanamo prisoners have been charged with war crimes and six have undergone pretrial hearings. But no case has yet reached the trial stage before a military commission.
Guantanamo inmates have challenged their detention in more than 180 cases filed in federal district court.
Next Tuesday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in an important legal challenge to the tribunal system by Guantanamo prisoner Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the first inmate to face a military tribunal.
Hamdan, a Yemeni accused of being Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and driver, is challenging Bush’s authority to use military tribunals to try Guantanamo prisoners for war crimes.
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami)
© Reuters 2006