'Prisoners of war' arrive in Cuba amid human right concerns

First Taliban and al-Qa'ida detainees held at US naval base
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The Independent US

Bound, masked and under the control of heavily armed US Marines, 20 al-Qa'ida and Taliban prisoners arrived for indefinite incarceration at America's Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.

The prisoners' arrival last night came four months after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. The prisoners face intense interrogation, especially about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden accused.

Amnesty International expressed concern, saying the plan to house detainees in "cages" would "fall below minimum standards for humane treatment." The size of the temporary cells ? 6 feet by 8 feet ? also is smaller than "that considered acceptable under US standards for ordinary prisoners," the group said.

Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed complaints by some human rights groups that the heavy security represented a violation of the prisoners' rights.

The United States is reserving the right to try al-Qa'ida and Taliban captives on its own terms and is not calling them "prisoners of war," a designation that would invoke the Geneva Convention and offer them protection under the convention.

Human rights activists are concerned that US officials plan military tribunals and lowered standards of due process.

Labour MP Donald Anderson, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, said today: "Whatever the formal category, these prisoners still have legal rights and what we've heard already suggests that human rights are indeed being put in jeopardy.

"The starting point is that al-Qa'ida is a fanatical terrorist network. These are people from whose ranks were drawn those responsible for the outrage on 11 September.

"We in the coalition, the US, have to show that we don't descend to their level. We must show the highest standards and treat them in a civilised way. Their human rights must be maintained unless strong justification can be shown otherwise."

Mr Anderson said it would be difficult to justify shaving the prisoners' beards off because of the religious significance. "That and other pointers do raise real concerns about the treatment of these men. "The suggestion that they are in these cages in Guantanamo which are open to the elements again suggest that their human rights are being violated," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The prisoners ? all shackled and some wearing turquoise surgical masks because they tested postive for tuberculosis ? were taken off the Air Force C-141 cargo plane about an hour after it touched down late last night, following the 8,000-mile journey.

The first prisoner off the plane, who appeared to have a bandaged knee, limped as he walked to one of two waiting white school buses. Several of the detainees appeared to struggle with the 50-plus Marines who led them to the buses. At least one prisoner was sedated on the trip to the base, and two were forced to their knees on the tarmac before being allowed to stand again and walk to the buses.

Brigadier-General Michael Lehnert, commander of Joint Task Force 160, which is overseeing the operation ? said the detainees were "wobbily and disoriented" and were compliant with the troops who were armed with machine guns and automatic assault rifles. "These represent the worst elements of the al-Qaida and the Taliban," he said. "We asked for the bad guys first."

Gen. Lehnert said the prisoners treatment would be "humane but not comfortable," and US officials said the Red Cross and other groups will monitor conditions. The prisoners would be offered three meals a day, two of them hot and all of them "culturally neutral" to conform to religious dietary restrictions.

The men would be given two bath towels, one to serve as a prayer mat if they choose, the other for showering. They would be allowed a washcloth, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap and shampoo.

The prisoners would get the towels but no blanket. They would not be issued mosquito repellant but the camp would be sprayed regularly, Cox said.

They were put onto two white school buses and then a convoy of vehicles accompanying the buses left for a Navy ferry to take the prisoners to the windward side of the base.

The prisoners left Afghanistan aboard a C-17 but were transfered to the C-141 at an undisclosed stopover. They left Kandahar airport wearing shackles and goggles with tape over them so they couldn't see.

At their detention camp the prisoners were to be isolated in temporary, individual cells with walls of chain-link fence and metal roofs, where they were to sleep on mats under halogen floodlights.

The arrival at Guantanamo Bay of the 20 leaves 361 prisoners at the base in Kandahar and 19 at the air base in Bagram, north of Kabul. One prisoner, American John Walker Lindh, found fighting alongside the Taliban, remained on the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea.

The camp has room for 100 prisoners now and soon could house 220. A more permanent site under construction is expected to house up to 2,000.

The Guantanamo base is one of America's oldest overseas outposts. The U.S. military first seized Guantanamo Bay in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.