January , 2002

Images of Afghan Prisoners Stir Controversy

LONDON (Reuters) -- Dramatic pictures of gagged and manacled al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at a U.S. prison camp in Cuba have stirred controversy in Europe and the Middle East.

Media commentators and human rights advocates say the images have shifted the focus of moral condemnation from the carnage of the September 11 attacks on the United States to the makeshift Guantanamo Bay penal colony.

``(The images) should raise questions with all people who are attached to human rights. We're supposed to be better than terrorists,'' said the president of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly, Lord David Russell-Johnston.

However, most governments have made no comment on the photographs, released by the U.S. government at the weekend. They showed the prisoners in orange overalls, wearing black-out goggles, ear muffs and surgical face masks, kneeling in open-air cages with their wrists and ankles tightly shackled.

Hafez Abu Se'da, chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, said the United States was violating international human rights standards.

``What we're seeing is suffering, and it is against human rights principles all over the world. We all expect the United States to respect human rights,'' he said.

Media in Britain, America's top ally in its war in Afghanistan, were the most vocal in condemning the treatment of the detainees, three of whom are Britons.

London's left-leaning Mirror newspaper featured a full-page color picture of the captives and asked Prime Minister Tony Blair: ``What the hell are your doing in OUR name, Mister Blair?''

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Sunday that Britain wanted an explanation from the United States about the pictures.

But Blair's spokesman Monday said the British detainees had ''no complaints'' about their treatment or the facilities in Cuba. A British delegation visited its detainees Friday.

Yemen has asked the United States for access to 17 Yemeni men held in the camp to check on their condition, a Yemeni official said Monday.

The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, a London-based charity, said precautions taken by the U.S. military ``were unnecessarily humiliating and degrading.''

``Winning a war does not entitle the victor to humiliate the vanquished,'' said Sherman Carroll, the foundation's public affairs director.


The U.S. military has transferred nearly 150 prisoners to Guantanamo Bay since last week and several hundred more are being held in Afghanistan.

They were captured during the war in Afghanistan that ousted the Taliban rulers who protected Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born dissident whose al Qaeda network is accused of being behind the September 11 hijack attacks on New York and Washington.

The United States has not classified its captives as prisoners of war, a label which carries specific rights under the Geneva Convention. Both the Red Cross and U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson consider the captives prisoners of war.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has dismissed criticism over the handling of the detainees, who he said were ``extremely dangerous.''

``I think that the people who have been the most shrill on the subject, once they have more knowledge of the subject, will stop being so shrill,'' Rumsfeld said Sunday.

At Camp X-Ray, the prisoners are held in 6-foot by 8-foot enclosures with roofs and floors but only chain-link walls until more permanent structures are built.

The London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission said the treatment of the prisoners was ``reminiscent of the treatment meted out in concentration camps.''

``This is the type of action that Nazis would be proud of,'' IHRC Chairman Massoud Shadjareh said.

But not everyone was concerned about the detainees' welfare.

Dr. Mehdi Chehade, director of the Center for Euro-Arab studies in Paris, said the Muslim and Arab world was not particularly upset by the photographs but may become more concerned the longer the prisoners were kept in such conditions.

``At the moment, the Arab world and its governments are keeping their distance from these prisoners,'' Chehade said.

And many Muslims were keen to show their sympathy with the United States after the September 11 attacks.

``I am with the way the Americans are treating them because these people have already used terror and tyranny against others,'' a Kuwaiti man said from Kuwait.

Copyright 2002. Reuters. All rights reserved.

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