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Top British attorney: U.S. has failed to fix Guantanamo flaws

Carol Rosenberg
McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI - Britain's top lawyer told the U.S. legal establishment on Monday that Congress and the Bush administration have failed to fix fundamental flaws in its war crimes court at Guantanamo - jeopardizing Western efforts in the war on terrorism.

"The changes made are too little and too late. There remain fundamental problems with this system of detention," Lord Peter Goldsmith told the American Bar Association's annual winter meeting, being held this year in Miami.

But his remarks to the House of Delegates, the ABA's 546-member policy-making body, signaled Britain's first public condemnation of the new rules for military commissions passed in the last days of the Republican-led Congress.

He also made his comments on the eve of new legislation - expected to address some of the British official's complaints - to be introduced Tuesday morning by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., a veteran member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Dodd's office said the senator consulted human rights groups and military law experts to write the Effective Terrorists Prosecution Act, which would once again revamp military justice meant for Guantanamo.

His proposal would restore the rights of captives there to traditional habeas corpus review in U.S. District Court in Washington.

Goldsmith, whose title is her majesty's attorney general, has long been a critic of the U.S. detention center in southeast Cuba. He reiterated earlier calls for its closure.

The 2006 Military Commission's Act was meant to fix the tribunal system - the first U.S. war crimes court since World War II - after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an earlier system as illegal.

But Goldsmith said the current Military Commissions law, whose manual was released Jan. 18, forbids confessions obtained through torture but leaves wiggle room for coerced confessions.

Moreover, he said, it is "a law which treats aliens in a different way from American citizens."

The Bush administration defended any upcoming military trials at Guantanamo as closely resembling Pentagon courts-martial.

The new military commissions will presume a captive's innocence, give him a lawyer and view and challenge any evidence against him, said Dean Boyd, of the Justice Department's National Security Division.

"Such trials will more than satisfy United States obligations under the Geneva Conventions and international law," Boyd said Monday.

Goldsmith said foreign friends of the Bush administration have a duty to criticize Guantanamo because it is a dangerous "symbol of injustice" that complicates the West's war on terror.

"We have to show against an al-Qaida narrative that all that the West does is designed to oppress Muslims, that our values are actually those of justice, tough and fearless but fair," Goldsmith said. "The presence of Guantanamo makes it so much more difficult to do this, for all of us."

Earlier, the ABA's House of Delegates adopted a resolution of support for the "courageous lawyers" who provide free-of-charge services to Guantanamo captives.

A senior Pentagon official in charge of detainee affairs, Charles "Cully" Stimson, himself a lawyer, lit a national legal firestorm by making a Jan. 11 broadcast call on corporate America to boycott firms whose lawyers represent Guantanamo captives.

Lawyers across the country protested that so-called pro-bono representation is a bedrock American principle. Stimson first apologized. Then he resigned the job of deputy assistant secretary of defense for attorney affairs.

The House of Delegates adopted it on a unanimous voice vote after impassioned addresses by three attorneys, among them New York Bar Association President Mark Alcott, who invoked the Pledge of Allegiance.

"It's not justice for some - not justice for most," Alcott said.

"It's justice for all."

The Pentagon has held men and teens from dozens of countries as "enemy combatants" at the remote U.S. Navy base for more than five years. Today they number about 395 - none of whom are currently charged with a crime.

Tony Blair's government has successfully negotiated the release of all the British citizens held earlier at Guantanamo - after, Goldsmith said, he offered the legal opinion that the U.S. could not guarantee them fair trials that met international legal standards.

Goldsmith said that British legal officials would "provide more detail to the U.S. government" of its concerns about the latest legislation.

He also took a swipe at Stimson's remarks.

"I assure you that remarks of that sort," he told the House of Delegates, "are viewed from across the Atlantic as unjust, unacceptable and un-American."

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