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U.S.: Big Week Begins For Prisoners Held By Pentagon

The status of prisoners captured by U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and Iraq is a controversial issue in the United States. Lawmakers continue to receive new reports of abuses of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops. And the Supreme Court has sought to clarify the legal status of foreign detainees at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying they have the same rights as prisoners incarcerated in the United States. And as RFE/RL reports, still more attention is about to be focused on both groups of detainees.

Washington, 19 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- This will be a significant week for prisoners held in U.S. military custody in both Cuba and Iraq.

In Guantanamo Bay, hearings will begin soon for the approximately 600 men who were captured during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Those detainees have been held without access to lawyers for more than 2 and 1/2 years.

The hearings were ordered in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying the Pentagon cannot deny the prisoners the right to challenge their detention as enemy combatants.
"[The] first criterion is to do it fairly and accurately, and [to] document it and make sure we have qualified people [to represent the prisoners]."

U.S. Navy Secretary Gordon England said on 16 July in Washington that all the prisoners at Guantanamo have been notified of their right to challenge their status. He said the U.S. armed forces have begun assigning representatives to the prisoners to help them prepare for the hearings.

"The first contact between personal representatives and detainees will be taking place next week [19-25 July]. Our plan is, late next week or early the following week, we will have the first tribunal hearing. So the very first hearing should be this coming week [19-25 July]," England said.

England stressed that the prisoners will not be represented by lawyers, but will have an opportunity to demonstrate whether they were fighting with the Taliban or Al-Qaeda against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002.

The Navy, England said, is maintaining high standards for the hearings.

"[The] first criterion is to do it fairly and accurately, and [to] document it and make sure we have qualified people [to represent the prisoners]. And the second criterion is to do it as quickly as we can, because it is important, obviously, to the people being detained," England said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee plans hearings this week to explore new reports it has received about further abuse of prisoners in Iraq.

The chairman of the panel, Senator John Warner, says he hopes to get the testimony of L. Paul Bremer, who served as the civil administrator in Iraq until sovereignty was handed over to an interim government three weeks ago.

Already, Warner's committee has held three hearings on the abuse scandal. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking Pentagon officials have already answered the panel's questions, but Bremer has yet to testify.

Warner said on 15 July that the hearings will be important as both Congress and the Defense Department continue their separate investigations into the widening scandal over the abuse and even torture of some Iraqi prisoners.

"No stone is being left unturned as the Department of Defense and, to some extent, the Department of Justice, are looking at this situation to determine what happened, how it happened, who is accountable and how, most importantly, it can never happen again," Warner said.

Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it feared that the abuse scandal could be broader than originally believed. It says it suspects the Americans may be hiding prisoners taken in Iraq or Afghanistan in undisclosed locations that the Red Cross has not yet been able to visit. The Pentagon has rejected those suspicions.

The scandal broke three months ago with photographs showing the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghurayb prison outside Baghdad. Since then, the scandal has spread to detention centers in Afghanistan, and the known nature of the abuse has grown from sexual humiliation and beatings to torture and even murder.

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