US law chief 'throws rights to the wind'

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Backed by a large majority of ordinary Americans, John Ashcroft, US Attorney General, has emerged as the prime defender of Washington's sweeping new anti-terrorist powers which many Democrats, leading lawyers, and international critics regard as a violation of the US Constitution and of human rights.

Last week Mary Robinson, the United Nations human rights chief, became the latest high-profile figure to lay into Mr Ashcroft, a former senator from Missouri. She questioned the Bush administration's "trust me" attitude over the new measures, saying they circumvented the system of checks and balances of a democratic society.

She singled out as a special "reason for concern" the round-up of more than 1,000 foreigners here. The former Irish president also attacked President George Bush's order allowing suspected foreign terrorists to be tried before military tribunals, with a panel of three judges instead of a jury. She warned that these could trample on a prisoner's basic rights.

But Mr Ashcroft, closely aligned with the religious wing of the Republican party and who opposes abortion rights and gun control, was having none of it when he testified to Congress on Thursday. Instead he accused his critics of at best imbecility, at worst something akin to treachery; their tactics, he insisted, "only aid terrorists", by eroding national unity and "encouraging people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil". Though the military tribunals will be run by the Pentagon and not the Justice Department, they are seen as another facet of the hardline policies championed by an Attorney General accused by liberals of throwing the constitution to the wind in his zeal to round up suspected terrorists.

Why, argue Mr Ashcroft's foes, cannot alleged terrorists go before US domestic courts which coped perfectly well with the trials relating to the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing and the 1998 African embassy bombings? Among other controversial Ashcroft measures are the right for investigators to eavesdrop on conversations between lawyers and their clients, discussions normally subject to absolute protection, and the "voluntary" request addressed to 5,500 people, mostly of Arab or Middle Eastern background, to submit to questioning from the FBI.

There is also much concern over people detained after 11 September who are still in custody. The majority is being held for small technical violations of immigration rules; the signs are that very few, if any, of them were directly involved in the attacks, which US officials acknowledge were primarily planned in Europe.

But if these measures alarm leading Democrats such as Patrick Leahy, chairman of the influential Senate Judiciary Committee, if anything the American in the street favours an even tougher line. Only 10 per cent in one recent poll said they thought the government was going too far.

On one issue, however, the hard-talking Mr Ashcroft could be in trouble: his refusal to allow the FBI request to check whether those held after the terrorist attacks had bought guns in the US. As a senator, it is pointed out, he opposed required background checks on gun buyers and backed a failed amendment that would have destroyed such records immediately after the purchase.