Razor wire and cages hold US 'battlefield detainees'
January 13, 2002
By Olga Craig, Charles Laurence and David Wastell
BLINDFOLDED and manacled, their heads shaved, they spilt out of the belly of the specially converted American C141 cargo aircraft into the suffocating humidity of Guantanamo Bay. As the 20 senior Taliban and al-Qa'eda fighters - among them one Briton - were herded across the tarmac by 60 US Marines armed with machine-guns this weekend, several stumbled and fell to their knees, their arms stretched skywards in submission. Four, their legs bandaged and their faces swathed in the turquoise surgical masks of tuberculosis sufferers, lay spread-eagled and still.
Guantanamo Bay, the remote American naval base in Cuba, is one of the most godforsaken places on earth. Surrounded by shark-infested waters, two electrified razor wire fences and a minefield, its conditions are harsh, its regime brutal: the prisoners will have known they could expect relentless interrogation and spartan conditions. The first of an expected 2,000 terrorist prisoners to be flown to the naval base, they have been denied the protection of the Geneva Convention because they have been decreed "battlefield detainees" and "unlawful combatants".
The American authorities made it clear that while the men would not be given the usual prisoner-of-war status, they could expect "humane but uncomfortable" conditions. "They are detainees, illegal combatants," insisted Steve Lucas, a US military spokesman. "They are combatants who were detained by US or coalition forces in opposition forces. Their legal status is being determined at the highest level."
Donald Rumsfeld, America's defence secretary, has emphasised that the first priority will be "extracting information" and that any decisions on legal processes and military tribunals will come later. He said: "You don't hurry through this. When you are talking about defending against terrorist actions against this country and our friends and allies around the world, you take your time and try to do it right. "So you know that after you have gone through that first interrogation, it is best to wait a bit and see what other kinds of information come up from other people. "From computers, from various types of intelligence-gathering . . . You might arrest somebody with pocket litter that connects the person to one of the people you are interrogating. You must be patient."
The prisoners already there and those who will arrive in the next few days are among the most experienced and fanatical terrorists captured. "We asked for the bad guys first," said Brig Gen Michael Lehnert, the commander of Joint Task Force 160 which is overseeing the transfer of prisoners from Kandahar in Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay. "These represent the worst elements of the al-Qa'eda and the Taliban."
Those who arrived on Friday were herded on to white buses and driven to specially constructed 6ft by 8ft cages where they will be held in isolation. Initially, the prisoners were to be held in the relatively relaxed existing communal buildings but Mr Rumsfeld - who responded to that idea by saying, "You have got to be kidding" - ordered Marines on the base to build high-security cages. "The first arrivals are being held in temporary maximum security facilities which were built in the last few days," a US spokesman said. "Those facilities are essentially outdoor cages or outdoor cells." The cages, constructed from chain-link fences topped with canvas roofs, are encircled by several yards of razor wire. Each of the compounds will be lit by blazing halogen floodlights 24 hours a day to ensure that the prisoners are constantly monitored. Each prisoner will be given a mattress and two towels, one to be used as a prayer mat. They will be given three meals a day and have access to "a few toiletries" - a washcloth, toothpaste, soap and shampoo. They will not be given blankets and will not be given repellant to ward off the swarms of mosquitoes that thrive in the tropical swamp which forms the bay. In light of recent attempts by al-Qaeda prisoners to overthrow their captors, they will be guarded around the clock by armed marines and kept in shackles. "It will be humane but you would not want to be here," said one senior officer at the base. "There will be no freedom of movement." It was unclear, contrary to some reports, whether the prisoners' beards - symbols of religious devotion - were shaved off by their captors.
The conditions in which the prisoners will be held and their definition as battlefield detainees have evoked criticism from human rights groups and MPs. Amnesty International, in a letter to Mr Rumsfeld, said: "Housing detainees in 8ft by 6ft cages, partially open to the elements, falls below minimum standards for humane treatment." The organisation pointed out that the prisoners would not be adequately sheltered from the elements and said that the American captors' use of blindfolds and hoods amounted to cruel and degrading treatment.
*B*Lt Gen Hamid Gul Haq, the former head of the ISI security service in Pakistan, said yesterday: "I think it is very strange behaviour that one didn't expect from the Americans . . . They are setting new trends in state behaviour by coining new terms like battlefield detainees. "One can safely say they are violating all norms of behaviour and violating the Geneva Convention."*E*
Yesterday Donald Anderson, the Labour MP and chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, added his disquiet. He said: "Whatever the formal category, these prisoners still have legal rights and what we have heard already suggests that human rights are indeed being put in jeopardy."
Mr Rumsfeld denied the allegations, insisting: "There is no violation of human rights." He said that because the al-Qa'eda fighters were not soldiers they were not entitled to the rights accorded to prisoners of war. Visiting Kabul, Sen Joe Biden, the Democrat chairman of the Senate's foreign relations committee, said he had "no problem" with the "unlawful combatants" definition. "If the defence department were to detain these prisoners in a way that offended the American people, it would not last long. I cannot imagine that happening," he said.
Last night the International Committee of the Red Cross said that it had seen no evidence of maltreatment when it saw the prisoners before their transfer to the Guantanamo Bay naval base, and accepted the need to use chains during the flight given al-Qa'eda members' history of hijacking aircraft.
Additional reporting: Martin Bentham, Kabul