Harsh Detention for Afghan Prisoners

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Harsh Detention for Afghan Prisoners

Terrorism, law, and social values

Newspaper article

By: BBC News

Date: January 16, 2002

Source: "Harsh Detention for Afghan Prisoners," as published by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC News), and available online at: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/1752863.stm>.

About the Author: BBC News is a world-wide news gathering network headquartered in London and is sponsored by the government of the United Kingdom.


On January 11, 2002 Camp X-Ray in Guatanamo Bay, Cuba, became the temporary detention center for suspected members of the Taliban government and al-Qaeda terrorist group members who were captured during the United States invasion of Afghanistan. Camp X-Ray stirred debate about the role of the Geneva Conventions (an international agreement barring torture, abuse, and indeterminate detention of prisoners of war) in modern warfare.

The human rights of detainees was complicated because they were not granted prisoner of war status. Individuals with prisoner of war status are protected by the Third Geneva Convention, which defines the humanitarian rights and the required treatment of prisoners of war (POWs). The U.S. government classified Taliban (Taleban) members as prisoners of war and followed the Geneva Convention, releasing them from custody. However, they classified most captured al-Qaeda members as illegal combatants, claiming that they are not soldiers or guerrillas, nor part of an army or militia.

Humanitarian groups have argued that if they are not protected under the Third Geneva Convention, then they should be protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which describes the required treatment of civilians in enemy hands. The United States government asserts that all enemy combatants in its custody are treated in accordance with standing international human rights agreements.


Taleban and al-Qaeda prisoners flown from Afghanistan to an American naval base in the Caribbean are being held in tough conditions of detention.

A temporary detention centre called Camp X-Ray has been set up at the base in Guantanamo Bay, an isolated US outpost on the edge of Fidel Castro's Cuba.

The prisoners are being housed in cells measuring 1.8 by 2.4 metres (six feet by eight feet) with open, chain-link walls, a concrete floor and wooden roof.

They face intense interrogation by US officials anxious to track down Osama Bin Laden, the alleged mastermind behind the 11 September suicide attacks on New York and Washington.

The US authorities have not granted the detainees prisoner-of-war status, meaning they are not protected by the Geneva Convention.

Washington wants military tribunals to try the prisoners, and the cases are expected to be heard outside the U.S.

As the base is located outside sovereign territory, the prisoners have no legal rights under the US constitution, and no right of appeal to federal courts.

Jeffrey Kofman, an American journalist who has visited the base, said the facility was "very, very minimal."

The cells had concrete floors, wooden roofs and wire mesh walls. Prisoners had a foam mat to sleep on, two towels—one for washing, the other to use as a prayer mat, and some form of chamber pot, he said.

"It was a far more bares bones facility than frankly I expected to see. They say they will be holding the detainees in cells, but really they are cages . . .

"One person said: 'Are they kennels?', to which one of the military staff in charge said: 'No they're not kennels, they are cells, and they're within the bounds of the Geneva Convention. What we are operating is humane treatment, but we're not offering comfort."

The human rights group Amnesty International voiced concern about the "cages" used for accommodation, saying they would "fall below minimum standards for humane treatment."

The first group to arrive—20 prisoners described by U.S. military officials as "the worst elements of al-Qaeda and the Taleban"—wore goggles covered with tape and had their hands tied. Some also wore leg shackles.

They wore surgical masks as some prisoners had tested positive for tuberculosis and at least one prisoner was sedated.

They will spend most of their time separated, although they will be allowed out of their cells in small groups for meals, showers, and some recreation.

They will be allowed to pray according to their faith.

The camp gets chilly at night and there are swarms of mosquitoes.

The base—known by U.S. servicemen as "Gitmo" is surrounded by mangrove swamps, salt marshes, and dense bush—and the sea is shark-infested.

The camp perimeters, lit up at night, has watchtowers and two fences topped with razor wire constantly patrolled by heavily armed marines.

At night the camp is lit up with halogen floodlights.

Members of a movement that tried to prevent women from working may be disconcerted to find that some of their guards are women.

"We have no intention of making it comfortable," Marine Brigadier-General Michael Lehnert told Reuters news agency. "It will be humane."

Hundreds of marines and military police have been flown to Guantanamo Bay to expand the compound to house up to 2,000 prisoners.

American marines landed in Guantanamo during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the base was established under a 1903 treaty.

After Fidel Castro led the Communists to power in Cuba in 1959, then U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower refused to relinquish the base despite strong objections from Havana.

Although Washington continues to pay the rent, set 100 years ago at 2,000 gold coins a year, and now worth about $4,000, Castro refuses to cash the cheques.

Cuban Frontier Battalion troops continue to watch their U.S. counterparts along the 28-kilometre fence, but tension has diminished since the end of the Cold War.

American officials have named al-Qaeda and Taleban leaders killed or captured as frustration grows that some senior Taleban figures are reportedly slipping through the net.

Among those who have not been questioned by the U.S. military are three former Taleban ministers who turned themselves into the new Afghan authorities—only to be allowed to return to their homes.

The most important is former Justice Minister Mullah Nuruddin Turabi—known to be close to Taleban leader Mullah Omar, former Defense Minister Mullah Ubaidullah and former Industry Minister Mullah Saadudin.

U.S. officials are eager to question the three, who they believe may have vital clues about the whereabouts of Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden.

The hunt continues for Bin Laden himself and Mullah Omar, who is believed to have escaped by motorbike as thousands of Afghan soldiers closed in on his suspected hideout.

Also on the wanted list are many more of Bin Laden's top lieutenants who are believed to have evaded capture. They include Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader who is Bin Laden's close adviser and personal doctor.


On April 29, 2002, Camp X-Ray was closed and prisoners were transferred to Camp Delta, a newly constructed detention center in Guatanamo Bay, Cuba. While the new facility offered improved accommodations for detainees, issues continued to be raised about the detainees' human and legal rights.

In 2003, Human Rights Watch released a report stating that the United States ignored human rights standards in its treatment of detainees at Camp X-Ray and that the United States did not comply with the requirements of the Geneva Conventions. The report stated that the United States should have granted prisoner of war status to Taliban soldiers and followed the standards of the Third Geneva Convention in regards to Taliban members. The report also stated that the United States should have convened a tribunal to determine the status of al-Qaeda members, as is described in the Geneva Conventions.

The legal rights of detainees also continued to be an issue. On November 10, 2003 the Supreme Court of the United States stated that it would hear appeals by detainees who considered that they were being held unlawfully. On June 28, 2004 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that some enemy combatants could legally challenge their detention. However, the Supreme Court also ruled that detainees could be held without charges. On January 31, 2005, the federal court found that the military trials used to classify detainees as illegal combatants were unconstitutional. Legal challenges over detainment at Guantanamo Bay have continued.



Lewis, N.A. "Red Cross Finds Detainee Abuse in Guantanamo." New York Times. November 30, 2004: A1.

Web sites

Amnesty International. "Memorandum to the US Government on the rights of people in US custody in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay." http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAMR510532002?open&of=ENG-313 (accessed July 3, 2005).

Human Rights Watch. "World Report 2003: United States." <http://www.hrw.org/wr2k3/us.html> (accessed July 3, 2005).