The Bush administration is supporting a provision in the House leadership's intelligence reform bill that would allow U.S. authorities to deport certain foreigners to countries where they are likely to be tortured or abused, an action prohibited by the international laws against torture the United States signed 20 years ago.
The provision, part of the massive bill introduced Friday by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), would apply to non-U.S. citizens who are suspected of having links to terrorist organizations but have not been tried on or convicted of any charges. Democrats tried to strike the provision in a daylong House Judiciary Committee meeting, but it survived on a party-line vote.
The provision, human rights advocates said, contradicts pledges President Bush made after the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal erupted this spring that the United States would stand behind the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the Justice Department "really wants and supports" the provision.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said, "We can't comment on any specific provision, but we support those provisions that will better secure our borders and protect the American people from terrorists."
The provision is one of several items in the bill that Democrats say are unrelated to intelligence reform but Republicans say are important tools for fighting terrorists. The Senate is debating its own intelligence reform bill that does not include the provision, and the House bill is being marked up in several committees.
Human rights groups and members of Congress opposed to the provision say it could result in the torture of hundreds of people now held in the United States who could be sent to such countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan, all of which have dubious human rights records.
Supporters say the measure would provide a much-needed change to U.S. laws.
"Our laws are not up to date with the war we're fighting," Feehery said. In many cases, he said, the Justice Department "can't keep [terror suspects] in detention, they can't convict them, they don't want to try them. . . . If you can't detain them indefinitely, you sure don't want them in America."
The international anti-torture law prohibited the deportation of individuals to countries where there is a reasonable expectation that they will be tortured, abused or persecuted. U.S. immigration law permits non-U.S. citizens to seek political asylum to avoid such persecution and prohibits deportation or removal to countries likely to commit torture or abuse unless the government seeks assurance the country will not do so.
In 2002, the Justice Department, in a case that has earned international condemnation, approved the expedited removal of a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, to Syria, a country whose long record of torture has been criticized publicly by Bush.
Arar, who U.S. authorities have said they suspect of links to a terrorist group, alleges that his Syrian captors tortured him during his 375 days in prison. He disputes U.S. claims. Freed last year by Syria, he lives in Canada with his family and has never been arrested or charged with a crime by Canada or the United States.
"Is it an inconvenience if we can't send people back to torturers? Sure," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "But since Abu Ghraib, everyone from the president to the Defense Department to Congress has said the United States does not have a policy of torture. If this passes, we will have a policy of tolerating torture."
Under the Hastert bill, U.S. authorities could send an immigrant to any country, regardless of the likelihood of torture or abuse. The measure would shift to the deportee the burden of proving "by clear and convincing evidence that he or she would be tortured" -- a burden that human rights activists say is impossible to satisfy. It would bar a U.S. court from reviewing the regulations, which would fall under the secretary of homeland security.
The provision would apply retroactively, to people now in detention and those who may have already been secretly deported under classified procedures to countries with well-documented histories of torture and human rights violations.