US military defends treatment of captives

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The Independent US

The United States was forced to defend itself over growing international criticism of its handling of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners, and claimed that they were being humanely treated.

The military sought to deflect criticism by revealing details of their conditions – and claimed that providing them with bagels, cream cheese and cereal bars amounted to humane treatment.

"Each detainee has an Isomat to [lie] on," Brigadier General Mike Lehnert, the base commander, told reporters, holding up an inch-thick piece of foam. "It is not particularly comfortable. It is also the same thing issued every day to our soldiers and marines. I have spent a good portion of my Marine Corps career on one of these mats."

Around 80 al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters are currently being held at the US naval base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, under conditions that the US says are humane if not comfortable. Plans are in hand to complete temporary accommodation for around 220 prisoners, with a longer plan to deal with up to 2,000 detainees.

The US claims the men are not prisoners of war and considers them 'illegal combatants', a status that affords them fewer rights under the Geneva Conventions. Most importantly, it means that the US can interrogate them without giving them legal representation.

Yet amid criticism from groups such as Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the US has increasingly felt the need to defend its treatment of the men, aged in their twenties and thirties.

General Lehnert said his men were being "guided by the Geneva Conventions". He told The New York Times: "We have an international community of suspected terrorists from all over the world. These are not nice people. Several have publicly stated their intention to kill an American before they leave Guantanamo Bay. We will not give them that satisfaction."

The general displayed provisions the prisoners have been given. Three times a day they are served what the Pentagon terms "culturally appropriate meals". Without a trace of irony, General Lehnert revealed that these included bagels, cream cheese, cereal bars and Froot Loops – a brightly-coloured, fruit-flavoured cereal. They also receive peanuts, raisins, sunflower seeds and beef stew, prepared in a halal fashion. They are provided with plastic cutlery that has to be returned at the end of each meal.

The detainees are held in chain-line cages with concrete floors,partially open to the elements and bathed 24 hours a day in the light of halogen security lamps. They are provided with a thin sheet of the type used by US military personnel at the base and said to be adequate for the tropical weather. Within their "individual units" they are provided with bottled water and allowed to shower once a day. The general said the men were provided with jumpsuits. "They don't get to pick the colour," he added.

A spokesman for the US Southern Command, said that the prisoners were shaved to prevent the spread of lice. "It is a hygiene issue."

The men are also given toothpaste and toothbrushes, their handles cut off so that they cannot be sharpened and used as weapons. They are allowed to pray freely, though not as a group. They have been provided with copies of the Koran, and soldiers claim they have pointed out to the prisoners the direction of Mecca. "They get two towels," said General Lehnert. "One towel is for washing and drying. The other is to be used as their prayer mat."

Prisoners arriving at the base – the third and most recent group arrived from Afghanistan earlier this week – are shackled and manacled, with some wearing mittens. Reporters who witnessed their arrival said that they were also wearing goggles with the lenses blacked out. Some were wearing blue surgical masks.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon's most senior lawyer, General Counsel William Haynes, visited the base to work on plans for military tribunals to try some of the prisoners.