February 8, 2002

Guantanamo Inmates Are POWs Despite Bush View


GENEVA (Reuters) -- The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Friday it considered Taliban and al Qaeda fighters held by U.S. forces to be prisoners of war, despite Washington's latest refusal to accept that.

``They were captured in combat (and) we consider them prisoners of war,'' ICRC spokesman Darcy Christen told Reuters.

President Bush agreed on Thursday to apply the Geneva Conventions to Taliban prisoners but said the al Qaeda network could not be considered a state that is party to the treaty, which guarantees a wide range of rights to captives.

Even though acknowledging the Conventions applied to the Taliban, Washington said that group would not be granted full prisoner of war status.

Britain, the staunchest ally of the United States in its war against those it considers responsible for the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, welcomed the move.

A spokesman for United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who has warned the United States it must treat captives humanely, also said she felt Washington's decision could be a ``step forward.''

But spokesman Jose Luis Diaz added that her legal advisers were still examining the implications of Bush's announcement.

A similarly cautious response came from some European capitals, several of which have expressed strong reservations about the way captives from the war in Afghanistan are held.

A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Paris's view had not changed. ``We believe that all the prisoners at Guantanamo should benefit from all the guarantees provided by international law,'' he said.

Washington triggered a storm of international protest after a photograph was released showing some inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp manacled, blindfolded and on their knees. The United States has dismissed all suggestions of mistreatment.


Granting prisoner of war status to the captives would have given them sweeping rights, including the right to disclose only their name, rank and serial number under interrogation and to go home as soon as the conflict ended.

Both the ICRC and Robinson said that under the Geneva Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory, any dispute over the status of a prisoner must be settled by a tribunal and not the government of one of the sides to the conflict.

``You cannot simply decide...what applies to one person and what applies to another. This has to go to court because it is a legal decision not a political one,'' Christen said.

The ICRC spokesman also noted that Article Three of the Third Geneva Convention on captives taken in international combat applied to all fighters.

The article sets out minimum standards, including prohibiting cruel treatment and guaranteeing that any trial of prisoners must be carried out before a ``regularly constituted'' court.

Christen said that there was no category under humanitarian law giving more than minimum Article Three protection but falling short of full prisoner of war status -- as the U.S. decision implied. ``It does not exist,'' he said.

U.S. officials have expressed concern that if Washington gave prisoner of war status to Taliban fighters and members of al Qaeda -- the network loyal to Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden who Washington says masterminded the September 11 attacks -- it would be virtually impossible to interrogate them.

Christen noted that former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega -- overthrown and captured by U.S. troops in 1990 -- was formally declared a prisoner of war but this did not prevent him being tried and jailed in the United States for drugs offences.

The ICRC is visiting prisoners held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as inside Afghanistan and will continue to report on their treatment based on standards laid down in the Geneva Convention.

Copyright 2002, Reuters. All rights reserved.

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