Washington Post
January 17, 2002

U.S. Pressed on Detainees' Treatment

By T.R. Reid

LONDON -- From left, right and center, criticism increased in several allied countries today over the U.S. treatment of prisoners airlifted from Afghanistan to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair was battered on the issue from all sides when he stood up in Parliament. He responded with a firm defense of the United States.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, warned that "we risk the values that we fought to preserve" if the captives are denied the legal rights of prisoners of war.

In Paris, the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, which had generally supported action against terrorists following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, warned that the treatment of the prisoners could turn into "a mere parody of justice." A Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his government is "concerned about American treatment" of the suspects in Cuba.

The United States is holding 80 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters at Camp X-Ray, an open-air prison on its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, with more scheduled to arrive in days. The individual cells have concrete floors and corrugated metal roofs, but the walls are only chain-link fencing. The prisoners were blindfolded and shackled for the airplane trip from Afghanistan. One was sedated, which the Pentagon said was for medical reasons.

At least three of the prisoners are reportedly British citizens, a factor that has significantly increased the political profile of the situation here. Some are Saudis and at least one is said to be Australian.

The Pentagon has described the detainees as "unlawful combatants." That means the United States does not consider them prisoners of war, a status that would give them legal rights under the Geneva Conventions.

U.S. officials have rejected the criticisms. Answering the complaints on the BBC today, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said: "I do not feel even the slightest concern about their treatment. They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else."

But the critics say that is not the appropriate standard. "If we merely compare our actions to what the Taliban did . . . don't we put the West in danger of losing the high moral ground?" asked Kevin McNamara, a left-leaning member of Blair's Labor Party, in Parliament today.

"The difference between al Qaeda and democratic civilization," said the French daily Le Monde, "is the respect of fundamental values, as set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Without that, there will be doubt about the very legitimacy" of the treatment of the detainees.

In Britain, criticism of Camp X-Ray transcends the normal political borders, with centrists, liberals and staunch conservatives all attacking the detainees' treatment.

"This is more than just the predictable left-wing crowd," said Adam Boulton, a well-connected political analyst for Britain's Sky News network. "Blair has a big problem at home if those Brits [in detention] are mistreated. He is genuinely worried about what Rumsfeld has in mind."

Faced with tough questioning from across the political spectrum in Parliament today, Blair argued that the prisoners in Cuba "are being treated humanely."

"The Americans assure us," Blair said, "that the International Red Cross will go and see them. A British team will visit those who claim British citizenship." Blair said the prisoners are given regular meals, showers, medical attention and exercise, as well as copies of the Koran.

The Pentagon spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, said Red Cross officials were expected to arrive Thursday at Guantanamo Bay. Urs Boegli, who heads the Washington office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, flew to Miami today to meet with officials of the Southern Command, which supervises the Navy base. Boegli and three other ICRC officials plan to proceed to the complex in Cuba within a day or so, officials with the private organization said.

Copyright 2002, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

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