Fairness in the Time of War? | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 18.01.2002
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Fairness in the Time of War?

The number of Al Queda and Taliban prisoners in Cuba continues to grow each week, and with it the concern of international human rights organizations seeking to guarantee their fair treatment


America's watchdogs

They spend their hot, sunny days shackled in small cells that some European critics have called "chicken coops."

Their turbans are gone and their heads shaved. Instead of the traditional shalwar kameez dress with a jacket, the captured Al Queda and Taliban fighters wear orange jumpsuits.

Around them, US soldiers patrol the grounds of the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, selected for its remoteness and security. Three layers of razor wire, six guard towers, a field of mines and a natural bay blocks their escape on all sides.

For the soldiers guarding them and the government they serve, the treatment of the 120 captured Al Queda and Taliban is fair and just.

"They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else," said US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a recent interview with the BBC.

For a host of international human rights organizations and some European politicians their treatment is cause for alarm.

"If we merely compare our actions to what the Taliban did, don’t we put the West in danger of losing the high moral ground?" said Kevin McNamara, a member of Tony Blair’s Labor party in the British Parliament earlier this week. There are several British citizens among the captured and a British delegation traveled to Cuba on Friday to assess their condition.

Do the prisoners have rights?

The biggest concern is the classification, or lack thereof, of the captured Al Queda and Taliban fighters, said a spokeswoman for Amnesty International. For the time being, the US government has designated the prisoners as "unlawful combatants" not prisoners of war.

The distinction means the prisoners don’t enjoy rights such as legal access and an independent trial, as granted them under Article 5 of the 1949 Geneva Convention.

"The (US) government should decide on the status of the prisoners," said Iris Schneider, a spokesman for Amnesty International Germany in Berlin in an interview with DW-WORLD. "As long as they don’t do that, the prisoners have no rights."

US-Gefangenenlager Guantánamo auf Kuba

Red Cross delegation visits

In order to appease some of its critics, the United States allowed a four-person team from the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the base. The group arrived late Thursday evening and will stay for at least four or five days, said Geneva-based spokeswoman Macarena Aguilar in a DW-WORLD interview.

"We’re in no hurry," Aguilar said.

The group is comprised of medical and detention specialists and one member is fluent in Arabic, Farsi, Dari and can understand Pashtu, the language of the majority of Taliban fighters. The group will spend their days meeting with prisoners and exploring every inch of the prison grounds, Aguilar said. In keeping with policy, the Red Cross will only share its assessment with the detaining authority and not make it public.

"For the time being we’ve had good co-operation," from the US, Aguilar said. "We hope it continues."

US: "These people are being treated very humanely"

A Pentagon spokeswoman said the group would find nothing wrong with the prisoners’ situation.

"They will find what happens to be true -- that these people are being treated very humanely," Victoria Clarke told reporters in Washington. "They are being given good, appropriate food three times a day. They are being given medical treatment. They are being given exercise and showers. They are being given the opportunity to pray if they want to."

As of Friday there were about 110 prisoners on the 45-square-mile US naval base, with more expected. Government and base officials have maintained that the small cells, which are roughly 2.4 meters by 2.4 meters and are covered on one side with chain link fence, are only temporary quarters.

US-Gefangenenlager Guantánamo auf Kuba

Cells only temporary quarters

Base commanders have plans to move the detainees into single cells with running water, a toilet and a cot. The base is eventually expected to hold up to 2,000 prisoners.

Military officials have told reporters that they have determined the identities of a majority of the prisoners. All are in their 20s and 30s and span a vast array of countries, cultures and languages. They arrive on US cargo planes, their heads typically covered or fitted with blacked out goggles, their legs shackled. One of them was sedated. So far none of them have been interrogated, base officials told reporters.

Reaction in Europe

For now, the European Union has given no official comment on the fate and treatment of the prisoners. But across Europe, newspapers and voices have been calling for the reasonable treatment of the prisoners, something that will continue to be watched very closely.

"In the chicken coops of Guantanamo Bay ... the second phase of 'Enduring Freedom,' has begun," wrote the Italian daily La Repubblica in an editorial Friday. "How (the prisoners) are handled will show whether military and technological superiority on the battlefield also means a civil and moral superiority."

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