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Afghanistan: Treatment Of Prisoners At Guantanamo May Injure U.S.-British Alliance

Fresh concerns have been raised over the treatment of prisoners at the Camp X-Ray detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba after the U.S. government released photographs showing the detainees kneeling on the ground wearing goggles, ear muffs, surgical masks, and heavy gloves. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has insisted that the Guantanamo prisoners be treated humanely and according to the principles of international law. But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has defended U.S. treatment of the prisoners, saying it is unfair to suggest that what he calls "hard-core terrorists" are being handled inhumanely.

Prague, 21 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today an unnamed spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said a team of British investigators met with three British citizens being held along with 141 other Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base.

The British team affirmed that the three British prisoners had no complaints about their treatment. The spokesman said the detainees are in good physical health and that "there was no sign of any mistreatment."

The spokesman said the prisoners did not wear goggles, ear muffs, or shackles while inside their cells, and that they only wear shackles when outside their cells.

The latest report may quell the brewing storm between the U.S. and Britain over the treatment of the prisoners, who are being held as unlawful combatants and not as prisoners of war, which would accord them rights under the Geneva Convention.

A four-person team from the International Committee of the Red Cross is currently at Guantanamo to conduct interviews with all the detainees. They declined to comment on the detainees' treatment, but said they do consider them to be prisoners of war.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisted yesterday that prisoners at the Camp X-Ray detention center be treated humanely and according to international law. Straw's statements were echoed by some British parliamentarians and members of the British press.

British parliamentarian Tony Lloyd told RFE/RL today that despite the reassurances Blair's office had received, he still questions the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Lloyd says the U.S. must uphold the highest standards of international law or risk damaging its alliance with Britain: "I think the United States has to know that there is a public opinion beyond individual governments. Yes, of course I want the British government to reflect public opinion in Britain and to remind the Americans as our close allies that we do think the process of the alliance does work in a two-way direction. It's important that Americans aren't left to the view that the world doesn't judge America if slips from the high standards we expect from a democratic, civilized country."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the treatment of prisoners yesterday, saying that it is "humane and appropriate."

"Obviously, anyone would be concerned if people were suggesting that treatment [of prisoners] were not proper," Rumsfeld said. "The fact remains [that] the treatment is proper and there is no doubt in my mind that it is humane and appropriate and consistent with the Geneva Convention, for the most part."

Rumsfeld suggested that those who are criticizing the prisoners' treatment may not know enough about their conditions. He said the prisoners are being allowed to practice their religion and have been given clean clothes. He says they are "dry and safe."

The criticism was sparked by the U.S. military's release of photographs from Camp X-Ray showing handcuffed prisoners kneeling on the ground wearing mittens, surgical masks, and blacked-out goggles.

Robert Nelson , a U.S. military spokesman at Guantanamo Bay, said yesterday that the pictures were taken shortly after the prisoners arrived from a long flight from Afghanistan on a cargo plane. He said the prisoners were wearing hats and mittens to keep them warm during the flight. He said the blacked-out goggles were a security measure to prevent prisoners from seeing during the initial processing procedure and medical screenings after their arrival.

Adam Roberts, an international relations expert at Oxford University, says that despite the initial uproar among British parliamentarians and the British media, the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo is unlikely to cause a permanent rift between the U.S. and Britain.

"I'd be surprised if this was a crisis that would cause a fundamental division, because it seems to be entirely a crisis that is resolvable and it would be remarkable if the two sides couldn't resolve the crisis," Roberts said. "Already there [have] been moves by the U.S. side that the prisoners have to be held in accord with international standards. And I think there's a likelihood that on the British side the case regarding the prisoners can be put in a quiet and reasonable way. So I would be surprised if it broke up the [U.S.-British] partnership."

But Roberts says that if the U.S. is to protect its alliance with Britain and maintain international legal norms, it must follow due process and determine whether the prisoners are in fact prisoners of war and can receive the full protection of the Geneva Conventions.

"It's not a matter of saying maybe they're prisoners of war. I perfectly understand Rumsfeld's position in regards to their status," Roberts said. "But if you assume they're not prisoners of war, there's a proper way for establishing [this], which is through a tribunal which the Pentagon has procedures for. It would be set up by the Pentagon."

Roberts does not believe that the majority of prisoners at Guantanamo are in fact, prisoners of war, a category he says only applies to Taliban soldiers: "Basically [prisoners of war] have to be part of the armed forces of a party to the conflict, and Al-Qaeda is nothing like a state so there's a problem there. Second problem: There has to be a responsible command system, and it's not at all clear what the command system of Al-Qaeda is and whether there's a clear line of responsibility. Thirdly, they have to wear a uniform or insignia -- in fact a uniform and insignia [which can] be seen at a distance. And fourthly, they have to conduct operations in accord with the laws and customs of war. I would question Al-Qaeda on these accounts."

But Avner Gidron of Amnesty International says all the detainees are prisoners of war and are being held in an inhumane manner. He also says responsibility for determining whether the detainees should receive prisoner of war status should fall to an independent U.S. court and not the Pentagon.

"Certainly we would agree with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which says that these prisoners which have been taken in conflict in Afghanistan and transferred to a U.S. military base on Guantanamo would be presumed to be prisoners of war and that's an official legal status that they should be awarded," Gidron said. "The Geneva Conventions are very clear on this issue: If there's any doubt as to whether someone taken captive during wartime is a prisoner of war it should be decided by a independent and impartial, competent tribunal, which would be an independent U.S. court. It wouldn't be for the secretary of defense or for another American official to arbitrarily decide, to declare that these people aren't prisoners of war."

Gidron says that there could be people who shouldn't be considered prisoners of war, but that they should be considered as such until a tribunal can determine their status. He says he and other human rights advocates fear U.S. authorities are avoiding this process so that they can try the prisoners in secret military tribunals that can hand down a death penalty with just a two-thirds majority.