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Political Notes week of Oct. 5, 2006

October 5, 2006 By:
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Rabbis Take Aim at Interrogation Issues

The liberal advocacy group Rabbis for Human Rights-North America blasted recent legislation passed by the House and Senate that would afford the president broad leeway in determining proper interrogation techniques. It would also deny detainees, such as those at Guantánamo Bay, the right to challenge their imprisonment through an American court.

The final version of the bill was a compromise between the president and the Senate, particularly several members of his own party, which found some of the original language on torture problematic. Nevertheless, the majority of Republicans on Capitol Hill have called a victory for the war on terror; the majority of Democrats have labeled it an assault on basic rights.

The law will also allow the president to label as an "unlawful combatant" anyone who is not a U.S. citizen, including permanent U.S. residents.

"This is a horrible day for American democracy," said Rabbi Brian Walt, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, an offshoot of the Israeli organization that's perhaps best-known for calling attention to perceived abuses of Palestinians in the territories.

"I cannot believe that the Senate basically allows the United States to deny the rule of law for people in detention for years," said Walt, himself a naturalized citizen born in South Africa.

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the stream that represents the largest number of American Jews, also came out against the law.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who has been been critical of the president's approach, led an effort to introduce an amendment that would grant detainees the right of habeas corpus and the ability to appeal their imprisonment.

That amendment was defeated 51 to 48, but Specter still supported the bill, as did U.S. Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)

Specter also said that, by and large, he favored most aspects of the legislation, and predicted that federal courts will strike down the provision denying prisoners habeas corpus rights.

"In my opinion, it doesn't have a ghost of a chance of standing," wrote Specter via e-mail. Yet "the good parts of the bill will be retained."

On Sept. 22, 50 Pennsylvania rabbis associated with RHR-NA signed a letter to Specter urging him to vote against a bill that condone's torture of any kind, and fails to strictly uphold standards set by the Geneva Convention.


Bill Passes -- to Mixed Reviews

The Senate and the House passed a bill that extends sanctions on Iran that were set to expire and authorizes funding for Iranian pro-democracy groups.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) -- who is trailing in the polls for his bid for re-election -- was the lead sponsor of the Iran Freedom and Support Act. He hailed its passage as a victory for democratic forces in the Islamic state.

He said that the legislation, which the president is expected to sign, "encourages a peaceful transition to democracy in Iran."

"The United States cannot stand by while the government of Iran continues to be a grave threat to our country," he stated in a press release.

Democrats complained that the final version of the bill failed to close an existing loophole that lets U.S. owned-companies with offshore subsidiaries from continuing to do business in Iran.

"It's a completely watered-down bill," said David Goldenberg, spokesman for the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Just last month, in fact, the group held a press conference in Philadelphia, where it charged that Santorum hadn't supported closing the loophole out of loyalty to Halliburton, the energy-technology company was once run by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Said Goldenberg: "This law sides with Halliburton business interests over American and Israeli security."

Santorum and members of the Republican Jewish Coalition have argued that banning all subsidiaries from doing business with Iran would unfairly punish companies, like Halliburton, that currently operate lawfully.

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