Criticism increases about treatment of Afghan prisoners in U.S. custody, and the defense secretary maintains that they are not prisoners of war.
By PAUL DE LA GARZA, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2002
WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday sought to dispel international criticism over the treatment of foreign prisoners at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba, declaring "it's time to tap down the hyperbole."
Human rights groups, the European Union, and a coalition of clergy, journalism professors and civil rights attorneys in the United States have decried the indefinite detention of the prisoners, mostly al-Qaida terrorist suspects, as inhumane.
But Rumsfeld, speaking at a Pentagon news briefing, repeatedly said that the U.S. military was treating the prisoners humanely and in deference to the Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of prisoners of war. He declined to characterize the detainees as prisoners of war, however, saying he would leave the legalities "to the lawyers."
In justifying the detentions, Rumsfeld said U.S. officials were holding the suspects for interrogation. He said the ultimate goal was to prevent another terrorist strike against the United States.
"They have been, they are today, and they will be treated humanely in the future," said Rumsfeld. He added, "To be in an 8-by-8 cell in beautiful Guantanamo Bay is not inhumane treatment."
Critics of the detention policy have noted that some prisoners were sedated during the flight from Afghanistan to Guantanamo, placed in shackles and made to wear ear plugs and blacked-out goggles. Critics also have complained about the holding facilities: cells, or cages, exposed to the elements. At night, flood lights shower the cells.
At the briefing, reporters inundated Rumsfeld with questions about the 158 detainees. At one point, the secretary interrupted the briefing to say he planned to answer each and every question about the detainees. He did, for more than an hour.
A sometimes exasperated Rumsfeld insisted that the suspects had better living conditions than in Afghanistan. The detainees, he said, are receiving "warm showers, toiletries, water, clean clothes, blankets, regular, culturally appropriate meals, prayer mats and the right to practice their religions."
In addition to medical care, they also get writing materials and visits from the International Red Cross, Rumsfeld said.
The secretary dismissed allegations of torture as "utter nonsense." "There is nothing inhumane about the cells, roofs, materials," he said. "They're being treated properly."
Still, Rumsfeld said, the Pentagon is building permanent facilities on base, presumably to improve security and living conditions.
On Tuesday, the European Union and Germany joined the Netherlands, British legislators, Amnesty International and the Red Cross in demanding that the detainees be given prisoner-of-war status.
Under the Geneva Conventions, POWS would have to be tried by the same courts and procedures as American soldiers, not by military tribunals.
Citing security concerns, U.S. officials have refused to identify the detainees, or even provide their nationalities. While the suspects have not been formally charged, Rumsfeld noted that their intent to kill Americans was clear. "They were in Afghanistan, shooting, and they were captured," he said.
He reminded reporters that the prisoners had revolted in a prison in Afghanistan, resulting in the death of a CIA officer. He also noted that in Guantanamo, at least one detainee has threatened to kill Americans. Another bit one of the guards, he said.
"This is not wonderful duty," Rumsfeld said, referring to the U.S. military guards.
Over the weekend the Pentagon was clearly stung by stories in the European press about the treatment of the prisoners. U.S. officials say the prisoners have links to Osama bin Laden.
On the front page, newspapers ran articles with photographs released by the Pentagon and showing the suspects kneeling on rocky ground, with goggles and surrounded by U.S. military guards.
On Monday, CNN repeatedly showed the pictures and featured an afternoon segment on the treatment of the prisoners.
On Tuesday, Rumsfeld called the release of the photographs "unfortunate" and acknowledged that viewers could have misinterpreted the images.
What the pictures showed, he said, were prisoners in a corridor awaiting placement in their cells. "It's no big deal," he said.
The Red Cross said it considers the detainees prisoners of war, and that the photographs violate a Geneva Convention protecting them from "public curiousity."
- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.