11 September 2001>News Stories>US defends captives' conditions

US defends captives' conditions

BBC News . 15 January 2002

The prisoners are being held as 'unlawful combatants'

Prisoners will be kept in uniforms.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has insisted that 50 al-Qaeda and Taleban prisoners being held under maximum security at a US naval base in Cuba are being treated humanely.

Human rights groups and British parliamentarians have expressed concern at reports that prisoners were shackled and hooded as they were flown to the Camp X-Ray detention centre from Afghanistan.

"I do not feel the slightest concern at their treatment. They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else," said Mr Rumsfeld.

Human Rights Watch has described the detainees' temporary wire fence cells - which are partially open to the elements - as "a scandal".

Jeffrey Kofman, an American journalist who visited the base on Tuesday, said the facility was "very, very minimal".

The cells had concrete floors, wooden roofs and wire mesh walls. Prisoners had a foam mat to sleep on, two towels - one for washing, the other to use as a prayer mat - and some form of chamber pot, he said.

'Cruel treatment'
He said authorities at the prison told him that the prisoners had been forced to shave their beards for reasons of hygiene.

Irene Khan, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, wrote to Mr Rumsfeld earlier this week expressing concern that the hooding of prisoners constituted "cruel treatment".

Her letter said that hooding prisoners under interrogation was seen by the UN as incompatible with a UN convention prohibiting torture.

Much of the controversy has centred around whether the prisoners have rights under the Geneva Convention.

Mr Rumsfeld earlier this week said that they did not, describing them as "unlawful combatants" rather than prisoners of war.

Nevertheless, Pentagon officials maintain that the detainees are being treated in accordance with the convention.

Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch's US Program, said that regardless of whether the prisoners qualify for the extra provisions that POWs are entitled to, they should still be treated "humanely".

"As a party to the Geneva Conventions, the United States is required to treat every detained combatant humanely, including unlawful combatants. The United States may not pick and choose among them to decide who is entitled to decent treatment," he said.

The United States has said the men, who were flown shackled and blindfolded to the base from Afghanistan, are being treated humanely.

The British Government has said the detainees - including three Britons - were being treated appropriately but added that it would complain to the US if conditions became unsatisfactory.

Britain concerned
Britain - America's main ally in the war in Afghanistan - has been keen not to criticise the US on the prisoner issue.

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told BBC radio the detainees faced tough measures because of the danger they posed.

"Many of these people's associates are assumed to have been those who have gone in for suicide bombings and for acting as suicides on aeroplanes," he told BBC radio.

He said Britain would ensure the three British captives were treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

None of the prisoners being held at the base has yet been charged but some could face trial in one of the military courts authorised by President George W Bush following the 11 September terror attacks on America.

Britain says it will object if its nationals are sentenced to death if convicted.