Bush decides that Geneva Convention applies to Afghanistan and Taliban, not al-Qaida fighters

Thursday, February 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush has determined that the Geneva Convention applies to Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan, but not al-Qaida terrorists, the White House said Thursday as aides insisted the decision would have no impact on the treatment of Afghan detainees.

``It 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,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

The decision resolves a technical legal argument regarding the detention of 150 fighters held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, but does not change the key point: The U.S. does not consider the detainees prisoners of war, a designation that would give them a wide range of rights.

``Al-Qaida is an international terrorist group and cannot be considered a state party to the Geneva Convention,'' Fleischer said.

Bush, under criticism from human rights groups, felt the move would underscore his commitment to the Geneva Convention and preserve protections afforded U.S. troops if they are captured in Afghanistan or elsewhere during the war on terrorism, officials 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 Convention,'' Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. Thursday's decision ``will make no difference at all in that,'' he said.

Rumsfeld said Bush decided to declare that the Geneva Convention applied to the Afghanistan conflict because it ``could conceivably be considered a precedent for the future.''

Bush still does not consider the detainees to be prisoners of war. He made that key decision weeks ago, which denied the detainees several rights for interrogation and living standards. Nothing he did Thursday altered his position on the critical POW issues, White House officials said.

Fleischer said the Taliban fighters who are being held are covered by the 1949 Geneva Convention because Afghanistan was one of the signers of that treaty. However, they are not POWs because they failed to meet several conditions outlined in the Geneva Convention, including an obligation to abide by rules of war, wearing uniforms and carrying arms in the open.

Instead, Taliban forces ``provided support'' to the al-Qaida terrorist network, Fleischer said.

The war on terrorism was not the kind of war that was envisioned when the convention was signed, Fleischer said.

The convention sets universal international standards for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. Under the agreement, such prisoners cannot be compelled to give more than their name, rank and serial number.

The decision was made as U.S. troops completed 320 new holding cells in Camp X-Ray at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. A plane carrying more captives for the camp was expected to arrive at the base on Thursday.

There are 158 detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay, at least 50 of them citizens of Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have asked that they be turned over for interrogation at home. Bush has said the Saudis will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

A few other countries, including Australia, Britain, Sweden and Yemen, also have citizens among the detainees. France sent a delegation to the base to verify the citizenship of several French-speaking suspects.

The first detainees arrived Jan. 11.

The Bush administration has refused to categorize the Guantanamo detainees as prisoners of war, saying they were among the most dangerous fighters of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network and the ousted Taliban regime. Bush does not want to provide them with cigarettes or musical instruments, the type of rights afforded to prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.

The third Geneva Convention, which relates directly to questions about prisoners of war, 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 whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.''

Since those held at Guantanamo Bay are not considered POWs, they have no such legal protections, although the administration has said it will treat all detainees humanely in every respect.

If they were classified as POWs, they would have the right to refuse to answer questions beyond name, rank and serial number. As detainees rather than POWs, they can be interrogated on any subject, although they cannot be treated inhumanely during interrogation.

Human rights groups and some European governments pressed for the prisoner-of-war designation so that the detainees would have greater legal protections under the Geneva Convention. They also have expressed concern over how the captives have been treated.

Britain said it wants the United States to return British suspects to stand trial at home. Besides the three Britons held at Guantanamo, the British Foreign Office has said two other suspects believed to be British are being held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.