(New York) - Human Rights Watch today called on President Bush to rescind his Executive Order permitting the trial of non-citizens by special military commissions. The Executive Order gives the military commissions extraordinary powers to violate the most basic due process rights long guaranteed by the United States.
"Under this Executive Order, a defendant could be sentenced to death without a public trial, the presumption of innocence, a right to appeal, or even proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch.
No protection is provided against forced confessions nor is it clear to what extent defendants will have access to legal counsel. Suspects detained under the Executive Order will not need to be told the reason for their arrest. In all these respects, Roth said, the Executive Order clearly violates the United States' most basic legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Human Rights Watch also pointed out that the Executive Order permits actions that the United States has long condemned when committed by other countries. Examples include:
- The conviction of U.S. citizen Lori Berenson for terrorism by a military court in Peru;
- The conviction and execution of author Ken Saro-Wiwa after a trial by a special military court in Nigeria;
- The use of military courts to convict suspected terrorists in Egypt without due process; and
- Trials of foreigners, including U.S. citizens, for espionage before closed tribunals in Russia.
"The next time the United States criticizes a foreign dictator for trying a dissident - or even an American citizen - before a military court, this is going to be thrown back in America's face," Roth said. "If this order is implemented, it will do permanent damage to America's ability to champion human rights around the world."
Human Rights Watch also criticized Attorney General Ashcroft's statement that because the persons responsible for the September 11th attacks committed war crimes, they do not deserve the protection of the American Constitution.
The United States has repeatedly argued that people accused of war crimes deserve full due process protection, including alleged war criminals in Bosnia and Rwanda. "How can the United States credibly make that argument when others are the victims if it refuses to act that way itself when Americans are the victims?" Roth said.