Background: Prisoners of War?
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GWEN IFILL: The first arrived at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, just over a week ago. U.S. officials would not call them prisoners of war, only “unlawful combatants,” a definition which has everything to do with how they have been treated and how much of the international community has objected to that treatment ever since. The Pentagon released photographs last week, which showed the handcuffed prisoners kneeling on the ground, wearing masks.
The images immediately sparked protest across Europe. Headlines in British newspapers accused the American military of torture. But Prime Minister Tony Blair said that the three British nationals held at Guantanamo have no complaint about their treatment. Still, the criticism spread to other countries today. The European Union joined the governments of Germany and the Netherlands, amnesty international and the international committee of the Red Cross in demanding that the United States grant the detainees prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Conventions. And the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner said the detainees at Guantanamo deserve the basic rights guaranteed to prisoners of war.
MARY ROBINSON: There are, as I say, recognized protections to prisoners of war. They should be held in conditions as favorable as U.S. soldiers. They are not required to divulge information beyond what we are familiar with from various films, etc.: Their name, rank and serial number and date of birth.
GWEN IFILL: The detainees, mostly suspected al-Qaida fighters, are being held at a U.S. military base known as Camp X-ray. They live in six-by-eight foot outdoor chain-link cells. Officials say their heads have been shaved to eliminate lice. And some have received medical treatment for war wounds.
REPORTER: Mr. Secretary…
GWEN IFILL: Questions about the treatment of the detainees consumed nearly a full hour of today’s Pentagon briefing. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the way U.S. forces are guarding the prisoners.
DONALD RUMSFELD: And let there be no doubt the treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay is proper, it’s humane, it’s appropriate, and it is fully consistent with international conventions. No detainee has been harmed. No detainee has been mistreated in any way. And the numerous articles, statements, questions, allegations, and breathless reports on television are undoubtedly by people who are either uninformed, misinformed or poorly informed. The detention center in Guantanamo Bay has gone from non-existent to a temporary facility. Current facilities are just that– they’re temporary. They didn’t exist a few weeks ago. The… They will be replaced in the months ahead with a more permanent facility as it becomes possible to determine the size and the scope of the problem. Today, which is, I think, which is, I think, just something like two short weeks after the activity began, the more than 150 detainees have warm showers; toiletries; water; clean clothes; blankets; regular culturally appropriate meals; prayer mats and the right to practice their religion; modern medical attention far beyond anything they could have expected or received in Afghanistan; exercise; quarters that I believe are something like 8′x8′ and 7.5′ high; writing materials; and visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross. These men are extremely dangerous.
At least one detainee now in Cuba has been threatening to kill Americans, another has bitten a guard. This is not wonderful duty; it’s difficult duty. To stop future terrorist attacks, we have detained these people, and we have and will be questioning them to gather additional intelligence information. A word on the legal situation, about which there also seems to be considerable interest: Whatever the detainees’ legal status may ultimately be determined to be, the important fact, from the standpoint of the department of defense, is that the detainees are being treated humanely. They have been, they are being treated humanely today, and they will be in the future.
I’m advised that under the Geneva Convention, an unlawful combatant is entitled to humane treatment. Therefore, whatever one may conclude as to how the Geneva Convention may or may not apply, the United States is treating them– all detainees– consistently with the principles of the Geneva Convention.
GWEN IFILL: Rumsfield said he regretted releasing the photos of the kneeling prisoners because the photos were taken out of context.
DONALD RUMSFELD: What that was, I am told, is not a detention area; that is a corridor or a walk-through area that came… My understanding is it goes something like this. When they’re on the airplane, they wear earpieces because of the noise. You’ve ridden on these airplanes; they’re combat aircraft, and we’ve all worn earpieces. It’s no big deal. There were a number who had tested… They were worried about tuberculosis, so in a number of instances, they were given masks for the protection of other detainees and for the protection of the guards. They come out of an airplane, and the back lowers, and they walk out. And then they loaded them into, I believe, buses, and they took them down to a ferry. And they were still restrained, their hands and their feet restrained because of the dangers that occur during a period of movement.
What happened was someone took a picture and we released it, apparently, of them in that corridor, kneeling down while their headpieces are being taken off. And people made a whole… drew a whole lot of conclusions about how terrible that was that they’re being held in that corridor.
GWEN IFILL: A Red Cross team arrived in Guantanamo last week to evaluate the treatment of the prisoners. Today, the Red Cross said that U.S. military had implemented some of its recommendations, but they declined to give specifics. Today a California judge considered a petition filed there, which demands that the suspects held in Cuba be tried in federal court. The government has until next Tuesday to respond.