The Fine Print in the Military Tribunals Bill


The House passed the Bush administration’s military tribunals legislation yesterday, which clarifies the rules for how terrorism suspects can be interrogated and tried, and the Senate is expected to vote on the bill today. The bill, which was rushed through Congress as the legislative session comes to a close, includes a host of troubling provisions. Among them, the bill, for the first time, defines the meaning of “illegal enemy combatant” and it does so in a very broad way. As The New York Times notes in an editorial: “…The bill could subject legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal. The president could give the power to apply this label to anyone he wanted.”

As The Baltimore Sun reports, this under-the-radar provision would also “for the first time legally endorse the fight against terrorism as equivalent to war,” which would “give the fight against terrorism the legal status of an armed conflict.” “Does it allow the president to basically define the war on terrorism as broadly or as narrowly as he wants?” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the California Democrat, told the Sun. “The answer is yes.”

Another provision, dealing with the rights (or, in this case, lack of them) of detainees to challenge their imprisonment in federal court, would effectively “strip green-card holders and other legal residents of the right to challenge their detention in court if they are accused of being ‘enemy combatants,'” according to the Boston Globe.

The part of the bill that worries advocates for immigrants most is the one stating that “no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the United States who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination.”…

In the original bill, the section banning “habeas corpus” petitions applied only to detainees being held “outside the United States,” referring to the roughly 450 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. But in recent days, the phrase “outside the United States” was removed.

Yet another provision makes “coerced evidence” admissible in court proceedings “if a judge considered it reliable — already a contradiction in terms — and relevant,” according to the Times. Further, “coercion is defined in a way that exempts anything done before the passage of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, and anything else Mr. Bush chooses.”

And that’s just for starters.

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