International pressure grows for Washington to recognize prisoners from Afghanistan as POWs protected by Geneva Conventions

Saturday, January 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) _ The United States came under new pressure Saturday to recognize the al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners at this Navy base as POWs.

Some British legislators asked for a meeting with the U.S. ambassador in London to express concern about the prisoners.

``You can't play around with human rights ... and the rights of such prisoners are set out in the Geneva Conventions which both the U.S. and ourselves are signed up to,'' said Ann Clwyd, chairwoman of Parliament's Human Rights Committee.

Deputy Prime Minister John Manley of Canada, speaking during a trip to Pakistan, said the ``prisoners need to be treated in accordance with humane norms and international law. And we expect the United States will do so.''

The United States has been careful not to use the term ``prisoners'' because those detained would then be covered by the Geneva Conventions.

Under the conventions, POWs must be tried by the same courts and under the same procedures as U.S. soldiers. They could be tried for war crimes through courts-martial or civilian courts but not by military tribunals.

``The question of legal status is not just an academic question, it is a question of life and death,'' said Avner Gidrone, a senior policy adviser for London-based Amnesty International.

``If the intention is for the United States to try these prisoners through a military commission, it would almost certainly carry the death penalty, would not meet international standards and would violate standards of due process.''

A group of British diplomats was at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base Saturday to inspect conditions of three detainees who say they are British.

The U.S. military also allowed a Red Cross team to visit the facilities and interview detainees this week. The Red Cross has said its report will be confidential, shared only with U.S. officials.

Brig. Gen. Mike Lehnert, the head of a task force in charge of the detention mission, said both groups were being given ``full access'' and that Red Cross officials are being allowed to interview detainees in ``full privacy.''

U.S. officials say the prisoners are being treated as humanely as possible considering the danger they present. Some have threatened to kill their American captors and, Lehnert said, one bit a guard on the forearm Wednesday.

The inmate had become ``somewhat upset'' while being escorted to another cell, Lehnert said, adding no ``violence'' was used to subdue him.

The bite did not break the guard's skin, and the prisoner was held in a separate cell for a few hours, he said.

The Geneva Conventions also dictate that prisoners be housed in the same conditions as their captors. In Guantanamo, soldiers are staying in stucco houses and tented camps.

Some 110 prisoners, including people believed to be citizens of Britain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Australia, are being held in temporary cells with walls of chain-link fence covered by a corrugated metal roof.

Amnesty International says the camp's cells _ eight-by-eight feet _ are below U.S. standards for ordinary prisoners.

Lehnert said Saturday that the prisoners had more space than Marines, housed two to a tent that gives the soldiers' 40 square feet each, compared 64 square feet for detainees in individual cells.

``Of course, they (the Marines) have their freedom,'' he added.

The prisoners hair and beards have been shaved off and they are dressed in long-sleeved orange jumpsuits. Temperatures at the base have soared over 90 degrees, tempered by tropical breezes. It has rained but not so much as to get the inmates wet, the military says.

The temporary cells will soon be able to hold 320, or more if inmates are housed two to a cell until a permanent prison under construction is ready. The permanent facility would hold up to 1,000 inmates, Lehnert said Saturday. Previously officials had said it would hold 2,000.