SYDNEY, Australia – Staunch U.S. supporter Australia on Thursday backed Washington's use of secret CIA prisons overseas to interrogate terrorist suspects, but Muslim critics in Asia said the U.S. leader's defense of the practice amounted to a tacit approval of torture.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of Australia, whose government has sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq and mirrored some of Washington's tough legislative response to terror threats, outlined what he said were some of the benefits of the secret prison system.
He said information from one secret prison detainee had led to the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda's alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Riduan Isamuddin, a key leader of Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. The two formed a link between the two terrorist organizations, Downer said.
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Other information from secret prison detainees led to the capture of Hambali's brother, the closure of a Jemaah Islamiyah cell in Pakistan and knowledge of "a good deal about Al Qaeda's plans to obtain biological weapons capability," Downer said.
"A great deal has been achieved through these kinds of programs," Downer told Parliament, adding that information garnered from such detainees "has led to the capture and in some cases the killing of terrorists who might have otherwise killed innocent people."
But Muslim politicians and activists decried the system, and U.S. President George W. Bush's vow to continue using it.
Asma Jehangir, a senior member of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, demanded Washington immediately end the program, which she said amounted to sanctioning torture, and apologize for ever bringing it into existence.
"They have to admit that what they did was wrong," said Jehangir, who currently heads a U.N. panel that recently issued a scathing report about the detention of suspects at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo, Cuba.
"They cannot justify it in the name of terrorism and frightening people," she told The Associated Press in Islamabad.
She noted Bush had said in his speech that militants were trained to resist interrogation.
"It doesn't mean that you can lower the threshold and start torturing them," she said.
Manfred Nowak, the U.N. special investigator on torture, has said the use of secret prisons violate anti-torture commitments under international law because keeping detainees in such places is a form of enforced disappearance.
China criticized the secret prisons.
"China advocates ... that anti-terror efforts should observe the principal of the U.N. charter and the basic norms governing international relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters.
In a speech in Washington, Bush on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time that the CIA runs secret prisons overseas and said the program would continue because it "has been, and remains, one of the most vital tools in our war against the terrorists."
Bush also urged Congress to quickly pass administration-drafted legislation authorizing the use of military commissions for trials of terror suspects. Legislation is needed because the Supreme Court in June said the administration's plan for trying detainees in military tribunals violated U.S. and international law.
Nasharudin Mat Isa, the deputy leader of Malaysia's largest opposition party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, said Bush's speech confirmed that his administration would stop at nothing to pursue an agenda that represses Muslims worldwide.
"To us this is nothing new, Bush's use of military and force to act upon his agenda," Nasharudin said. "We all know that he can only carry through his plans by using force like this."
Indonesia, home to more Muslims than any other country, said terrorist suspects should be brought to trial as quickly as possible, including Hambali, who is an Indonesian whose whereabouts have not been disclosed since he was taken into U.S. custody in 2003.
Jakarta has repeatedly asked Washington to allow Indonesian officials to question Hambali, but the requests have been denied.
"If with this new policy, anybody, including Hambali will be processed in U.S. court, it will be highly appreciated," Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said.
Maj. Michael Mori, the Pentagon-appointed lawyer for Australian Guantanamo Bay prisoner David Hicks, said the legislation Bush wants to use to try inmates being held at the camp is designed to restore provisions that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June were illegal.
"It appears to be just a rubber stamp of the old illegal commission system," Mori told Australian Associated Press.
Unfair provisions in the White House legislation included authorizing hearsay evidence admitted and denying suspects the right to be present if the court decides a suspect might hear evidence that is classified, he said.