On the heels of Amnesty International calling the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "the gulag of our time," Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, will hold hearings this month on the treatment of foreign terrorism suspects at the detention camp, said an aide to the senator.


Earlier this week Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described Amnesty's characterisation as "reprehensible".


But on Friday night, the Pentagon, for the first time, confirmed several incidents in which the Quran had been mishandled at Guantanamo Bay prison.


Military guidance


The Pentagon is working on new guidelines for handling people captured during wartime.


The 142-page draft document is being written by the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is not intended to set policy, but rather to provide the military with guidance to implement detainee policies set by civilian authorities.


Specter, according to an aide, is in the preliminary stages of drafting a bill to establish procedures for detentions and exploring the possibility of making the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court the venue for challenging them.


Call for prison closure


Prisoners at Guantanamo have
suspected links to bin Laden


Amnesty International has called on the United States to close its Guantanamo prison, where about 540 men are being held on suspicion they have links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban leadership or Usama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.


While the human rights watchdog worries about Congress putting into law "enemy combatant" status, which it says is a category of prisoner not sanctioned by international and humanitarian treaties, it applauded Specter for looking into the issue.


"Any kind of sunshine would be a good antiseptic for this situation," said Jumana Musa, advocacy director for human rights and international justice at Washington-based Amnesty International USA.


Specter's hearing will focus on the detention of enemy combatants at Guantanamo and in the United States, and whether trying them before military tribunals provides them adequate due process, the senator's aide said.


Witnesses from the Justice Department and Defence Department are expected to be called to testify, the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the hearing has not been announced.


Enemy combatant


The term 'enemy combatant' was
created after 9/11


The Bush administration created the detainee category of "enemy combatant" after the 11 September, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and applied it to members or associates of al-Qaida and the Taliban.


The administration argues that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to suspected members of al-Qaida - a position spelled out in a January 2002 memo to President George Bush from then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who is now attorney general.


The Guantanamo camp, which began in January 2002 with the arrival of prisoners captured in Afghanistan, has been widely criticised. So far, only four detainees there have been charged with a crime, and their military trials have been stalled because of appeals in US courts.


Prisoner abuse


The problems at Guantanamo were compounded by the April 2004 revelations about mistreatment of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad.


Photographs taken by US military personnel and published around the world depicted scenes of sexual humiliation and physical abuse.


So far, only two US citizens have been designated as enemy combatants.


At Abu Ghraib US soldiers took
photos of the detainees


Jose Padilla, a former gang member who was born in Brooklyn, New York, has been held since 2002 without being charged.


Louisiana native Yaser Hamdi was released in October after the Justice Department said he no longer posed a threat to the United States and no longer had any intelligence value.


Hamdi, who was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2001, gave up his American citizenship and returned to his family in Saudi Arabia as conditions of his release.