Senator Inhofe visits Guantanamo Bay

Friday, January 25th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) _ Around 20 members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., arrived at the Guantanamo Bay detention center Friday to learn if captured fighters of the Afghan war are providing useful intelligence for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

One senator said he also would be checking on conditions of the detainees, though others in the delegation have pointedly said that the visit is not about the prisoners' treatment and status, a high concern of some U.S. allies.

``We are here primarily to find out whether we're achieving our military mission _ that is getting the information that we need from the detainees to help us prosecute the war on terrorism,'' said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Nelson said Thursday that he would take note of prisoner treatment at the so-called Camp X-ray. ``I don't have any reason to believe that there is not humane treatment, but I'll be observing everything,'' he said.

Rep. Porter Goss, a Republican from Florida who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that the visit ``has nothing to do whatsoever with treatment of prisoners.''

Three planes brought about 20 legislators to the base in eastern Cuba, where 158 detainees are being held at a facility called Camp X-Ray.

Rep. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., expressed concerns about dangers facing troops at Guantanamo, because officials say some detainees have threatened to kill their U.S. captors. ``We know the military is stressed here a great deal. I think it's important to make sure they have what they need,'' Sessions said.

Some of Washington's staunchest allies continue protesting the possibility that the al-Qaida and Taliban fighters could be tried by secret military tribunals empowered with the death penalty.

Although President Bush has said the detainees are being treated humanely, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday his government prefers to have three British detainees returned home to stand trial.

Also, Malaysia's government said it was sending an official protest over treatment it considered ``inhumane,'' and Germany called in the U.S. ambassador there to discuss the detainees' treatment.

Australia said it continues to assess the legal position of an Australian detainee, David Hicks, 26, and added there seemed no doubt that Hicks had joined the Taliban.

``POWs are normally held until the war is over,'' Prime Minister John Howard said Friday. ``I'm not saying he won't come back to Australia. We continue to assess his legal position.''

Several governments are demanding the United States give the captives prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Conventions, which rules out trial by military tribunal.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham had said he would join the trip and investigate prisoners' conditions, but he canceled his trip because of a Senate vote on the economic stimulus plan, his spokesman said.

A Muslim Navy cleric arrived at the open-air prison Thursday dressed in fatigues topped by a Muslim skull cap, then faced east toward Mecca and, through a bullhorn, sang the lyrical invitation to join morning prayers.

``There was noticeable chatter among the detainees,'' Marine Maj. Stephen Cox said.

Afterward, accompanied by guards, Lt. Abuhena M. Saiful-Islam went into the camp and spent several minutes introducing himself.

``They were very happy to see me and they were very appreciative that I'm here,'' he said.

The Bangladesh-born cleric said he would care for the ``spiritual and cultural rights'' of the detainees.

Anything they tell him is confidential, as with any soldier's conversation with a chaplain, he told reporters.

``We didn't send Saiful in to become a spy,'' said the camp commander, Marine Brig. General Mike Lehnert.

The cleric also will give cultural orientation to the American guards.

After a discussion with Saiful-Islam, Lehnert said detainees no longer would have their heads shaved _ a concession for prisoners who, until their imprisonment, wore the long hair and beards favored by more devout Muslims. Lehnert said he had not decided whether to let them grow beards.

The detainees began arriving Jan. 11 and were not allowed lawyers as officers from several U.S. civilian and military agencies questioned them on a variety of subjects, including terrorist training, Lehnert said.

Officials have postponed bringing the remaining 230 detainees from Afghanistan until the interrogations are finished and more temporary cells are constructed.

Authorities want to determine whether the detainees should remain imprisoned at Guantanamo, be sent to another country or returned to their homelands.

On Thursday, sailors unloaded wooden crates filled with medical supplies at a new tented field hospital. Capt. Pat Alford said it would be ready to accept patients within three days and initially would have 20 beds. About one-third of the prisoners have battle wounds.

The tents are rising where the military plans to build a more permanent prison that would meet U.S. standards.