Treatment of prisoners defended

Rumsfeld denies POW status to captured soldiers, calls them 'unlawful combatants'

Posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld insisted Tuesday that the United States is treating terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay humanely and in accordance with international rules.

But critics, including European Union officials and human rights groups, said the American refusal to call the detainees prisoners of war leaves them no guaranteed rights, and could lower international support for the war against terrorism.

''The treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay is proper, it's humane, it's appropriate, and it is fully consistent with international conventions,'' Rumsfeld said. America's priority, however, is stopping terrorist attacks by interrogating prisoners, not determining if they qualify as POWs, he said.

''That is pure, simple self-defense of the United States of America,'' he said.

The 158 prisoners, mostly suspected al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, were flown to the U.S. military base in Cuba after being captured in the Afghanistan war. Rumsfeld said they eventually would be charged or released.

The prisoners wear blacked-out goggles, shackles and handcuffs while being moved, but those are removed once the men are led to cells, Rumsfeld said. A British newspaper over the weekend ran a front-page photograph of one detainee, wearing goggles and kneeling on rocky ground, under the headline ''Tortured.''

Human rights groups also have criticized the detainees' temporary cells in steamy Cuba -- a concrete slab divided by chain-link fences and topped by a corrugated metal roof.

The West risks losing support if it mistreats the prisoners or subjects them to the death penalty, said Chris Patten, the EU's external relations commissioner.

''That would be a way of losing international support and losing the moral high ground,'' Patten said. He urged ''decency and generosity of spirit to the vanquished, even if they are pretty dangerous.''

Rumsfeld called critics misinformed about the danger the detainees pose to military guards. One prisoner has threatened to kill Americans, and another has bitten a U.S. military guard, he said.

Rumsfeld also said John Walker Lindh, an American accused of conspiring to kill fellow Americans, was being treated like other al-Qaida fighters. But Lindh will not be held at the Guantanamo base. Instead, because he is a U.S. citizen, he will be handed over to the Justice Department to face criminal charges in an American courtroom.

Walker was being flown to the United States on Tuesday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Tuesday that the U.S. military has adopted some recommendations from a team invited to Guantanamo, but refused to say what those were.

The Red Cross team interviewed 20 detainees on a one-to-one basis, giving them cigarettes and taking written messages to send home, said Urs Boegli, the group's senior representative from Washington.

''I'm satisfied with the access, with the cooperation from authorities, down to the guards in the camp,'' Boegli said.

The Red Cross, along with Germany, the Netherlands, British legislators and human rights groups all have asked that the detainees be given prisoner-of-war status. Under the Geneva Conventions, that would entitle them to trials under the same procedures as U.S. soldiers -- through court-martial or civilian courts, not military tribunals as the Bush administration has proposed.

Rumsfeld said the United States has not yet decided if the fighters qualify as POWs, and for now he calls them battlefield detainees. If they are instead found to be ''unlawful combatants,'' the Geneva Conventions require only that they be treated humanely, and the United States military is treating them humanely, the defense secretary said.

Al-Qaida fighters probably would not qualify as POWs because they wore no identifying insignia and did not abide by the laws of war, said Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch.

But Taliban fighters, whether Afghan or Arab, made up Afghanistan's armed forces and should be entitled to POW status, Fellner said.

Some people have raised concerns that some U.S. soldiers, if captured, could also be held as unlawful combatants by an enemy, because some wore local clothes, not uniforms, when inside Afghanistan. But Rumsfeld said that was unlikely because they carried identification as soldiers.

Other critics, including Amnesty International, suggest the Guantanamo base could become a long-term penal colony used to hold any type of terrorism suspect, without giving the suspects fair trials or even access to attorneys.

The United States recently flew to Guantanamo six Algerians, arrested in Bosnia, who it believes may have intelligence related to al-Qaida but were never involved in the Afghanistan fighting.

They have not been charged, and a United Nations official in Bosnia, Madeleine Rees, said Bosnian and U.S. officials were wrong to push through the extradition of the six despite a high court ruling in Bosnia ordering their release for lack of evidence.



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