White House bows to pressure over torture of prisoners

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Bowing to bipartisan pressure on Capitol Hill and international uproar, President Bush has agreed to back legislation specifically barring the torture of prisoners held by the US.

The change of course by the White House was a big victory for Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was Mr Bush's rival for their party's presidential nomination in 2000, and is likely to make a second run in 2008.

Last month, Mr McCain crafted a resolution outlawing "degrading, cruel and inhumane" treatment of detainees that passed the Senate by 90 votes to nine.

Vice-President Dick Cheney lobbied senators in person to revoke the amendment, but was undercut when the Republican- controlled House, normally more obedient to the White House, also voted by an overwhelming margin for a similar measure.

To continue resistance, George Bush would have had to issue the first presidential veto of his near-five years in office, effectively in support of torture. As Mr McCain and other Republicans reminded him, this would have been a disastrous blow to the image abroad of the US, already tarnished by the renditions row, and allegations the CIA operated secret prisons for terror suspects abroad.

In the end, only cosmetic adjustments to the wording were made. The deal, Mr Bush said, "will make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad."

Mr McCain called the agreement "a message to the world that the US is not like the terrorists". The most obvious loser is Mr Cheney, in effect disavowed by his own boss.

But there could yet be problems. Though the Senate Armed Service Committee is fully behind the amendment, the Republican Congressman who chairs the corresponding House committee, Duncan Hunter, said he would not support it unless further changes were made.

In a poll, 38 per cent of Americans said they supported torture to interrogate terror suspects. The Ipsos Mori poll, carried out in nine countries, found 30 per cent of Britons backed its use. Germany and France had similar results to Britain.

Amnesty International, which disclosed in The Independent yesterday that the UK authorities failed to interview four men detained for four years under terror legislation, called the findings "deeply worrying". A spokesman, Mike Blakemore, said: "People are losing sight of the horrific reality of torture, enabling the UK to turn a blind eye to other countries' torture records by seeking 'memoranda of understanding' with countries like Algeria.