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U.S.: White House Won't Change Status Of Al-Qaeda Detainees

The White House says the United States will give certain safeguards of the Geneva Conventions to Taliban detainees, but not to Al-Qaeda fighters. Still, spokesman Ari Fleischer says, none of the detainees will have their classification changed to prisoners of war, because they were not part of a recognized military.

Washington, 8 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The White House says the Al-Qaeda fighters who are being detained at a U.S. naval base in Cuba will not get any legal protection under the Geneva Conventions covering the rules of war.

Spokesman Ari Fleischer announced the decision on Thursday: " Al-Qaeda is an international terrorist group and cannot be considered a state party to the Geneva Convention[s]. Its members are therefore not covered by the Geneva Convention[s] and are not entitled to POW [prisoner-of-war] status under the treaty."

Fleischer also said President George W. Bush has decided that Taliban fighters will enjoy certain rights under the conventions. But Fleischer said neither group will be classified as "prisoners of war," a status that would have given them the right not to be forced to disclose more than minimal information. Fleischer did not spell out the rights the captured Taliban fighters would be entitled to.

The United States has been holding 186 detainees at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba.

Fleischer said all detainees will be treated humanely: "In terms of the treatment of the prisoners, even though the president has determined that they will not be treated legally as prisoners of war, they will be afforded every courtesy and every value that this nation applies to treating people well while they're in our custody. So it [the decision] will not change their material life on a day-to-day basis. They will continue to be treated well because that's what the United States does."

Fleischer said Bush decided that certain aspects of the Geneva Conventions apply to the Taliban because Afghanistan, as a state, is a party to the document. However, he said, the individual Taliban captives are ineligible for POW status because they did not wear military uniforms and insignia to distinguish themselves from civilians and did not follow the standards of war.

U.S. officials said Bush, under criticism from human rights groups, believes the move will underscore his commitment to the Geneva Conventions and preserve protections afforded U.S. troops if they are captured in Afghanistan or elsewhere during the war on terrorism.

Commenting on the decision, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said "the United States has from the outset, is now and will in the future be treating detainees in a way that is humane and consistent with the Geneva Conventions."

The Bush administration has refused to categorize the detainees in Cuba as POWs, saying they represented the most dangerous fighters of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

The third Geneva Convention, which was signed in 1949, states the following regarding the limits of interrogation: "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind."

If classified as a POW, a captured combatant would have the right to refuse to answer questions beyond name, rank, and serial number.

In a written statement, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Bush "correctly acknowledged that the Geneva Conventions apply to the conflict in Afghanistan." But the group said Bush erred in deciding that the conventions do not cover Al-Qaeda detainees without convening a competent tribunal, as the Geneva Conventions require.

Human Rights Watch said the Geneva Conventions should apply to both Taliban and Al-Qaeda detainees being held by U.S. forces in Cuba and in Afghanistan, even if the Al-Qaeda fighters would likely not be accorded POW status.

Said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Bush's decision may put American soldiers around the world at risk, especially those troops who might be captured in combat.