ACLU Applauds Pentagon Memo Stating Military Detainees Covered By Geneva Conventions, But Justice Department Tells Congress It Should "Ratify" Broken Military Commission System

July 11, 2006 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – After more than four years of lawlessness, the Defense Department took a big first step toward complying with federal law, by stating that it will comply with Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions when holding detainees. However, just hours after the announcement of the new Pentagon policy, a top Justice Department lawyer urged Congress to “ratify” the military commissions that the Supreme Court invalidated two weeks ago.

“The Pentagon’s decision is wholly appropriate, in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, and long overdue,” said ACLU Director Anthony Romero. However, at the same time that the Defense Department is showing signs of heading in the direction of restoring the rule of law, the Justice Department is urging Congress to abandon it.

The new Pentagon policy reversed a prior Bush Administration claim that detainees were not protected by Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. In policies developed in early 2002 by President Bush, Attorney General Gonzales and top Defense Department and Justice Department officials – over the objections of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell – the Administration took the position that individuals held at Guantánamo Bay and many other detainees were not entitled to the basic legal protections outlined in the Geneva Conventions. The July 7, 2006 memorandum from Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England reversed the earlier policy.

The Pentagon memorandum comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that ruled the military commissions established by President Bush to try detainees at Guantánamo Bay are illegal. Congress has started a series of hearings, including three hearings this week, to decide how to try these detainees. Twenty retired generals and admirals, along with prominent senators such as Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, and Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have stated that the court-martial system should be the working model. But at the first hearing on the subject this morning in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Acting Assistant General for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Bradbury urged Congress to codify the military commissions that the Supreme Court had found to be illegal.

“It’s time for the government to stop trying to weasel out of obeying the Supreme Court and federal law. The Supreme Court made clear that the government could start putting people on trial at Guantanamo immediately if it follows court-martial procedures. We have the best military justice procedures in the world, but the Justice Department is telling Congress to use a broken system instead of the best one.”

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