Treatment Of Detainees Sparks Debate

The British Prime Minister sought Monday to ease tensions that blew up over the weekend about U.S. treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo prison, saying three Britons held captive there Â"had no complaints.Â"

A British team visited the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay over the weekend, at the same time that newspapers at home were playing up pictures of Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners shackled and kneeling. The news coverage prompted the government in London to ask the United States to explain itself.

The British team confirmed that the three British prisoners Â"had no complaints about their treatment,Â" Blair's official spokesman said Monday.

Â"They are in good physical health and there was no sign of any mistreatment. They have also had contact with the Red Cross,Â" said the spokesman, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

Â"The three asked for a number of messages to be passed to their families and we are in the process of doing that.

Â"There were no gags, no goggles, no ear muffs, no shackles while the detainees are in their cells. They only wear shackles — and only shackles — when they are outside their cells,Â" Blair's spokesman said.

After publication and broadcast of Defense Department photographs of the captives, a group of British legislators and human rights groups pressed for the detainees to be given prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Convention. Such status would mean they would be tried under the same procedures as U.S. soldiers — through court-martial or civilian courts, not military tribunals.

Thirty-four more detainees arrived at the base from Afghanistan Sunday, pushing the total number to 144.

In Los Angeles on Sunday, U.S. District Court Judge A. Howard Matz decided to consider a petition backed by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and other civil rights advocates that challenges the Guantanamo detentions. Matz scheduled a Tuesday morning hearing.

The petition alleges that the detainees are being held in violation of the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Constitution. It seeks due-process guarantees and to block any transfer of the detainees from the base.

The judge will first have to decide on his jurisdiction, which is typically based on geographical relevance, and on whether California plaintiffs have legal standing to pursue a case involving prisoners held at a U.S. facility in Cuba.

U.S. treatment of the suspects has posed a serious foreign policy challenge for Blair since he put Britain solidly behind Washington in the war against terrorism.

After one Sunday tabloid accused the United States of torturing prisoners, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he told British representatives at Guantanamo Bay to ask American officials for an explanation.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said accusations of mistreatment came from people who were not knowledgeable about the detention conditions, and he had Â"no doubtÂ" the detainees were being treated humanely.
But on Monday, more British newspapers assailed the treatment.

In its early edition, The Mirror ran a front page editorial calling it Â"barbaricÂ" and Â"Barbarism that is backed by our government.Â"

The paper also said President Bush Â"is close to achieving the impossible — losing the sympathy of the civilized worldÂ" for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Â"Britain and U.S. in rift over terrorist prisoners,Â" said The Daily Telegraph which, like all the serious broadsheet newspapers, made the issue front page news Monday.

A day earlier, The Mail on Sunday tabloid ran a cover photo under the headline Â"Tortured,Â" and wrote, Â"First pictures show use of sensory deprivation to soften suspects for interrogation.Â"

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights also had criticized the men's detention without charges or evidence.

U.S. officials have said stringent security is needed because many of the prisoners are dangerous and some have threatened to kill their U.S. captors. On Wednesday, one inmate bit the forearm of a military police officer who tried to subdue him.

On Sunday, armed Marines met the 34 newest prisoners and led them one-by-one from the Air Force C-141 cargo plane to a waiting school bus. The inmates' ankles were shackled and they wore orange jumpsuits, denim jackets, knit caps, turquoise surgical masks and goggles blacked out for security reasons.

Two of new arrivals were sedated during the flight because Â"they were yelling and thrashing about,Â" said a spokesman, Marine Maj. Stephen Cox.

Â"I don't think that I would characterize that as torture, I would characterize that as an appropriate security measure,Â" Cox said.

He said one detainee with an old battle injury to the leg was carried off the airplane. Officials say nearly a third of the detainees have battle wounds, mainly gunshots in the arm or leg.

The new arrivals were driven to the camp, where officials said they would be processed and given a basic physical exam. Then they are taken to temporary cells with chain-link fence walls on a concrete slab topped by a corrugated iron roof.

Military officials say the cells soon could hold 320 inmates, or more if they were housed two to a cell. Soldiers are awaiting permission to build a permanent facility that would hold up to 1,000 inmates.

Cox said the new arrivals did not include six Algerians transferred to U.S. military custody in Bosnia. U.S. defense officials in Afghanistan had said the six, suspected of terrorism, had been aboard the plane that left the military base at Kandahar airport for the 8,000-mile flight to Guantanamo Bay.

The men were originally arrested by Bosnian authorities on suspicion of terrorist ties, but have not been linked to al-Qaida.

There are now 232 detainees at Kandahar, down from a high of about 400.

Rumsfeld said Sunday the detainees likely would be tried by military commissions on Guantanamo. Such a move, on a base that is not on U.S. soil, wouldeny detainees the right of appeal in a U.S. court.

The U.S. military has not identified the detainees, but they are believed to include nationals of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Britain and Australia.

In Sweden, Foreign Minister Anna Lindh called Monday for fair treatment of a young Swede she was told had been detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan with a group of al-Qaida suspects and taken to Guantanamo.

The Swedish government has requested to see the man as soon as possible. Â"We count on receiving such permission soon, because we want to see how he is treated,Â" Lindh said.

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