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U.S./EU: Criticisms May Reflect Growing Tension Within Antiterror Alliance

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The Pentagon is vehemently denying any allegations of American mistreatment of suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban soldiers being held at a U.S. base in Cuba. But a storm of European criticism about the detainees' alleged abuse may be an indication of growing tension in the trans-Atlantic relationship -- and calls into question the strength of the global coalition against terrorism.

Washington, 23 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld strongly denies allegations that the United States is mistreating more than 150 suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban members being held at a U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But analysts say a recent storm of criticism from European leaders and human rights advocates may reflect rising tension in the global coalition against terrorism, as well as deep-seated European misgivings about the U.S. criminal justice system -- specifically, the use of the death penalty.

European leaders, including German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and European Union foreign affairs chief Javier Solana, voiced concern this week after photographs were published showing the detainees wearing shackles, blacked-out goggles, surgical masks, and ear coverings.

The detainees have arrived at the Guantanamo base over the last two weeks. A team from the International Red Cross is currently at the base interviewing them about their treatment.

A large headline in the 21 January London tabloid "The Mirror," a newspaper that often backs British Prime Minister Tony Blair, reflected some of the current European public opinion. It read: "What the hell are you doing in our name, Mr. Blair?"

The president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Lord David Russell-Johnston, said on 21 January: "[The photographs] should raise questions with all people who are attached to human rights. We're supposed to be better than the terrorists."

Rumsfeld was visibly annoyed by the criticism during a Pentagon briefing on 22 January. Calling the critics ill-informed, Rumsfeld was sarcastic about a recent debate in the British parliament about the treatment of the prisoners: "It's amazing the insight that parliamentarians can gain from 5,000 miles away."

Blair's office said on 21 January that it is satisfied with the U.S. handling of the prisoners. Three of the prisoners are British, and a team of British investigators who visited them said they had not been mistreated.

Rumsfeld said there is no evidence pointing to any abuse of the prisoners. He said they are being treated humanely in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

"The more than 150 detainees have warm showers; toiletries; water; clean clothes; blankets; regular, culturally appropriate meals; prayer mats and the right to practice their religion; modern medical attention far beyond anything they could have expected or received in Afghanistan; exercise; quarters that I believe are something like eight [feet] by eight, and 7 1/2 feet high (approximately 2.5 meters by 2.5 meters and 2.3 meters high); writing materials; and visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross."

Rumsfeld said the detainees will eventually be charged, but that, for now, the main U.S. objective is to gather intelligence and other information from them in hopes of averting possible future terrorist attacks.

But analysts say Blair and other European leaders are coming under pressure from voters and from domestic political opposition as the war in Afghanistan winds down. European opinion of U.S. President George W. Bush was mostly negative before the September terrorist attacks on America, mainly because of a perceived "unilateralist" approach by the new administration on key issues such as arms control and the environment.

British-born Robin Niblett, a senior fellow in the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says fresh criticism over the U.S. treatment of prisoners simply marks the return of familiar issues.

"I read it as a resurfacing of the tensions that pre-existed 11 September, between a Bush administration that was seen as being as a bit of a throwback to a more extreme kind of unilateralist U.S.A. and a Europe that felt that it expressed different sorts of values, both socially and in its approach to international relations."

Ted Galen Carpenter largely agrees. An analyst with the Cato Institute, another Washington think tank, Carpenter observed: "I think it's symptomatic of larger European attitudes about the American criminal justice system and the way we treat prisoners. The Europeans have adopted a rather supercilious attitude that the United States is -- in its treatment of prisoners and its criminal justice system -- a faintly barbaric country. And they look down at us for having the death penalty and for other aspects of our criminal justice system."

One burning issue on both sides of the Atlantic is the legal status of the detainees. Both Germany's Fischer and the EU's Solana on 21 January urged Washington to give the detainees prisoner-of-war (POW) status in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

But the U.S. says it has so far defined the detainees as "unlawful combatants" because, under international law, they bore none of the hallmarks of traditional soldiers -- such as military uniforms, insignias, or clear affiliations to a state.

Analysts say that one reason the U.S. is keen on maintaining this definition is because the detainees -- if classified as POWs -- would be entitled to return home at the end of the conflict. Carpenter said that while Washington may make an exception for the Taliban fighters, the U.S. clearly does not want to free suspected members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, preferring to try them in either civilian or military U.S. courts.

"We've created a gray-area status for them [the suspected Al-Qaeda fighters]. They're from our standpoint not considered prisoners of war."

Rumsfeld said he believes the Pentagon made a mistake by releasing photos of the prisoners, particularly one that shows a group of them kneeling on the ground wearing masks, goggles, and shackles. Rumsfeld said the prisoners had just arrived in Cuba after a long flight and that ear protection was needed in the noisy military aircraft; the masks because some prisoners are believed to have tuberculosis; and the shackles because the detainees have proven to be dangerous in transport.

Rumsfeld said one prisoner bit a guard, and he recalled that scores of people were killed in recent uprisings by Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners in Pakistan and in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. He said the prisoners are very dangerous but that they are not shackled while in their cells.

The cells themselves are also the subject of criticism. With chain-link fencing for walls and corrugated iron roofs, the British media have labeled them "cages" unfit for human living. Rumsfeld says the prisoners will be moved to a new facility once it is constructed.

Analyst Niblett says European attitudes may begin to affect their governments' support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism, especially if the alleged abuses are verified. He said that as the U.S. seeks to move the war on terrorism elsewhere, such as to Iraq, governments in Europe will be hard-pressed to sell it to their people.

"I think that European governments, as are some people in the United States, are concerned the United States will lose the plot from their perspective -- that they will lose their sense of attention on tackling not only the military campaign against terrorist networks but tackling the issue of poverty and injustice around certain parts of the world that are believed to provide a ready breeding ground for future terrorists. So the broader sense of how this problem is handled strategically, I think, may re-emerge as a source of tension between the United States and Europe."

But Carpenter says that although such tension may arise, trans-Atlantic cooperation in the war in terrorism is likely to remain fairly strong due to a convergence of European and American strategic interests on the issue.

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