News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Doctors protest over Bush's nomination for top legal post

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 06 January 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:60
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

More than 130 American doctors have signed an open letter to the US Senate expressing their concern over President Bush's nomination of White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to replace the outgoing John Ashcroft as US attorney general.

“Mr Gonzales has taken positions that contravene the United States' historical commitment to domestic and international law prohibiting torture,” argued the doctors, all of whom are members of the Physicians for Human Rights' Asylum Network. “There is reason to believe that these positions … have led to the torture and ill treatment of many individuals held in US custody.”

The letter urges the Senate's Judiciary Committee to “scrutinise closely” the record of Judge Gonzales during his upcoming confirmation hearings. “There should be no place in the US government for any official who condones the crime of torture, for which there exists unequivocal legal prohibition,” write the doctors, many of whom have worked with victims of torture.

Judge Gonzales' pivotal role in the loosening of US government policy on torture was shown in a series of memos leaked in April 2004, at the time the photos showing abuse in Abu Ghraib prison became public.

In a January 2002 memo bearing his signature Judge Gonzalez wrote to President Bush that the “new paradigm” of the “war on terror” “renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.”

The judge also drew criticism for memos he solicited from other government lawyers, which defined torture in far narrower terms than international treaties signed by the United States. One summer 2002 memo stated that “physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

While some techniques “may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, they do not produce pain or suffering of the necessary intensity to meet the definition of torture,” the memo concluded.

The doctors argue that this memo “condones practices that the US itself condemns in its annual Human Rights Report.”

When challenged by journalists over that memo's contents, Judge Gonzales said that government lawyers were merely “exploring the limits of the legal landscape” and that their conclusions “never made it to the hands of soldiers in the field, nor to the president.”

But two former judge advocate generals in the US navy, rear admirals Don Guter and John Hutson, have said that Judge Gonzales' findings led directly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib and more recently at Guantanamo Bay. They lead a group of senior retired military lawyers who say they too are considering ways to scupper the nomination. Thirty human rights organisations, church groups, and trade unions last month also signed a letter to the Judiciary Committee opposing Judge Gonzales' appointment.

The nomination is nevertheless expected to pass, not only because of the Republican majority in the Senate but because Mr Gonzales, a Bush loyalist from Texas, is the son of poor Mexican immigrants, and some Democrats are wary of opposing the country's first Latin American attorney general. Others feel that his relatively liberal views on abortion outweigh his national security record.

But Judge Gonzales may, this coming spring, be regretting his decision to ignore letters from Senator Patrick Leahy asking for clarification of his position on torture. Senator Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the committee, has been bitterly critical of abuses of prisoners and recently promised Judge Gonzales that his role will be examined in depth during the confirmation hearings.

Further documents are likely to emerge during the process, in addition to the many documents now being extracted from the government under freedom of information legislation, which show widespread new evidence of abuses, including murder and the suppression of investigations in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan.

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