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March 13, 2004

On Rights, US Government Not Too Far from Asian Regimes


by Marwaan Macan-Markar

Southeast Asian regimes known for their human rights violations are receiving a reminder here of how close the US government is to marching in their step, including having the habit of detaining without trial people deemed to be national security threats.

On Friday, a senior US official appealed for more global understanding about a this legal practice, one that is among Washington's cornerstones in its "war on terror" although it appears to "fly in the face of a historically open legal process (in the United States)."

"I can only hope (that) over a longer period of time, those who question what we have done understand that it was done consistent with our Constitution," US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told a packed meeting at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

"Our determination to hold individuals as enemy combatants is pursuant to presidential authority," he added. "There is sufficient authority within our legal process for a president, under extreme circumstances after 9-11 and the military engagement in Afghanistan, to deal with (enemy combatants) this way."

Ridge's comments came just over a day after five British Muslims were released from the Guantanamo Bay prison, where the US government has incarcerated over 600 suspects in its "war on terror" after the Sept. 11 attacks.

To rights activists, this release in fact sheds light on just how far Washington is willing to go to sacrifice human rights in favor of national security.

After all, it took the British police barely 24 hours to release the men without any charges. This was in marked contrast to the ordeal they underwent at the hands of US authorities four of them were held in the Guantanamo Bay prison for two years without a hint of trial or adequate access to lawyers.

Ridge's efforts to justify this post-Sept. 11 arrest and detention practice by the US government was seen in some quarters here as an abdication of what the United States had long represented an upholder of rights and a defender of laws.

"This has put a big question mark on the banner the US has been carrying as a global champion of human rights," Sunai Phasuk, the Thai representative for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, told IPS. "Currently, the US is resorting to draconian practices which it strongly criticizes when practiced by other regimes."

Ridge's defense of the Guantanamo Bay detentions would have been warmly received by Southeast Asian regimes that pursue extrajudicial policies, he added. "It will be like Christmas. The hunting season is open."

An Asian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity raised the issue of "double standards" in the US adherence to human rights. "(This is) especially when the US criticized (Thai Prime Minister) Thaksin (Shinawatra) for extrajudicial killings in 2003, but now it is endorsing extrajudicial detentions," he told IPS.

"You cannot preach the need for accountability and the need to respect the rule of law to developing countries in an environment of impunity," he added. "This lacks credibility."

Burma's military government is among the regimes in the region that have been regularly filling its jails with people it considers a security threat. Currently, there are an estimated 1,300 such political prisoners.

The police in Communist Party-ruled Laos, on the other hand, are known for arbitrarily arresting people, some of whom are subsequently kept incommunicado.

Further, the Malaysian and Singaporean governments use their respective internal security acts to detain people without trial.

In fact, the US State Department's annual "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" released in late February, captures this reality. For instance, it was critical of the way citizens in Burma "were subjected to arbitrary arrest without appeal. Arrests and detention for expression of dissenting political views occurred on numerous occasions."

"During the year," it adds, "the Government arrested over 270 democracy supporters, primarily members of the country's largest pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The Government detained many of them in secret locations without notifying their family or providing access to due legal process or counsel."

In Laos, the State Department report says, "police used arbitrary arrest, detention, and surveillance. Lengthy pretrial detention and incommunicado detention were problems."

As for Malaysia, the report drew attention to "problems" that included "police abuse of detainees, use of the Internal Security Act and other statutes to arrest and detain persons without charge or trial."

In straightlaced Singapore, the February report highlighted how the country's Internal Security Act has "provisions for arrest and detention without a warrant or judicial review" and that it has been enforced "primarily against suspected security threats."

Furthermore, the Thai government of Thaksin was criticized for the over 2,000 people killed in the country's "war on drugs," which the report stated had been the result of this Southeast Asian nation's worsened human rights record.

There was hardly a hint in Ridge's speech that the current US government's policy of detentions without fair trial constitutes a violation of human rights though this practice is noted by the State Department when similar realities prevail in other Asian countries.

The current policy, as shown by the Guantanamo Bay detentions is a "very appropriate use of (the president's) constitutional authority" during war, Ridge explained. "We have an open and transparent system of justice in the US"

(Inter Press Service)


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