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Red Cross wary of new US antiterrorism law

Says interrogation techniques merit a careful review

GENEVA -- The international Red Cross said yesterday it has ``concerns and questions" over whether a new US antiterror law signed by President Bush complies with the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war.

The legislation, signed into law Tuesday, authorizes military trials of terrorism suspects, eliminating some of the rights defendants usually are guaranteed under US law while allowing continued harsh interrogations of terror suspects, a provision Bush has said was vital.

The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross said it was studying the law, which it said was very complex and entailed both positive and negative elements. But it said it had some immediate reservations.

``Our preliminary reading of the new legislation raises certain concerns and questions," said Jakob Kellenberger, president of the Red Cross.

``The very broad definition of who is an `unlawful enemy combatant' and the fact that there is not an explicit prohibition on the admission of evidence attained by coercion are examples," he said.

Kellenberger said the Red Cross would discuss its concerns with the Bush administration, such as how the law ``omits certain violations from the list of acts that are war crimes under US domestic law."

``These include the prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, and the prohibition of the denial of the right to a fair trial, which is a basic protection provided for in international law," Kellenberger said.

Opponents of the legislation say it eliminates defendants' rights considered fundamental to American values, such as the use of coerced testimony as evidence.

For example, the military commissions that will try terror suspects are allowed to consider hearsay evidence so long as a judge determines it is reliable -- a provision barred in civilian courts.

Kellenberger said the Geneva Conventions guarantee prisoners ``the presumption of innocence, the right to be tried by an impartial and independent court, the right to qualified legal counsel, and the exclusion of any evidence obtained as a result of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment."

Bush pushed for the legislation because the Supreme Court in June said the administration's plan for trying detainees in military tribunals violated US and international law.

The act, which sets the rules for court proceedings, applies to those selected by the military for prosecution. It leaves mostly unaffected the majority of the 14,000 prisoners in US custody, most of them in Iraq.

It says the president can ``interpret the meaning and application" of international standards for prisoner treatment, which was intended to allow him to authorize aggressive interrogation methods that might otherwise be seen as illegal by international courts.

In Washington, John Bellinger III, the State Department's legal adviser, said yesterday the Bush administration has not decided whether it will give the Red Cross access to future CIA terrorism detainees or identify them.

``We think there's no requirement to do it" under the Geneva Conventions, he said.

Before Bush announced last month that the CIA had turned over its terrorism detainees to the US military, the administration did not acknowledge the program existed.

Bellinger recently returned from Berlin and The Hague, where he discussed the new law with officials there.

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