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Though Amnesty exaggerates abuse, America must hold to a higher standard


WASHINGTON - President Bush was right to label absurd a comparison by Amnesty International of America's military detention centers to a Stalinist gulag. Our detention camps are not gulags. Unfortunately, that's not saying enough.

Irene Kahn, secretary-general of Amnesty International, warned that our antiterrorism prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, otherwise known as Gitmo, is the "gulag of our times." Our military detention centers are not gulags, but that's too low a standard by which we, the world's sole superpower, should judge ourselves. Instead of dismissing such charges from internationally respected human rights organizations, we Americans should take these accusations seriously - while we still have a good reputation to protect.

Calling our detention centers gulags gives gulags too good a name. In the former communist Soviet Union, millions of political prisoners and others died of disease, starvation and other abuses in the country's brutal slave labor camps that were exposed by Soviet author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Neither those gulags nor, for that matter, their imitators today in China and North Korea are a difficult standard to beat.

Unfortunately, Amnesty International is hardly alone in finding that America's military detention centers fall woefully short in respecting the sort of human rights Americans like to brag about.

For example, the United States is detaining about 540 prisoners from 40 nations at Gitmo, who all are alleged to be involved in terrorism. More than 108 people have died in U.S. custody in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to U.S. government data reported in March by the Associated Press, which said that about a fourth of the cases have been investigated as possible prisoner abuse by the United States.

In addition, there may be more than 100 "ghost detainees" - unregistered detainees held without public record or government acknowledgment of their confinement - in U.S. custody in Iraq, according to testimony by military investigators before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld admitted he authorized the CIA to keep the name of at least one detainee off any prison register.

The Bush administration's sweeping policy after 9/11 allows the government to hold U.S. citizens and foreigners alike as terrorism suspects without trial for the duration of the war on terror. When is that over? When the government says it is.

That's not good enough, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June. Unfortunately, the high court remained vague on what was good enough.

The court allowed that Congress implicitly empowered Mr. Bush to hold suspected "enemy combatants" without trial indefinitely when it authorized the use of military force after 9/11, but the court also ruled that detainees were entitled to greater safeguards than they had received.

As Amnesty International pointed out in its latest annual report, almost a year after the Supreme Court's decision, not one case from among the 500 or so detainees has reached the courts.

In what could be the first major effort by a Republican to get the GOP-led Congress to grapple with the complexities of the post-Sept. 11 detention law, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has scheduled a hearing this month to create rules of due process for suspected terrorists who are being held without trial.

No matter how much certain blustery talk-show hosts and other self-described manly men scoff at human rights concerns for terrorist suspects, the best reason for protecting human rights at Gitmo and elsewhere is precisely that we want to win the war on terrorism.

The world will judge us by our deeds more than our words.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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