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RESPONSE TO TERROR

20 Terror Prisoners on Way to Cuba

Afghanistan: Rights group denounces U.S. military's treatment of the captives.

January 11, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A U.S. military cargo plane left Afghanistan on Thursday with the first group of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners to be transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as human rights activists criticized their treatment, citing hooded and possibly drugged detainees being sent to "cage-like cells."

Pentagon officials made no apologies for the security precautions being taken with the 20 prisoners, whose ranks have sometimes killed their captors and themselves with grenades strapped to their bodies.

The Cuba-bound prisoners were chained to their seats inside the cavernous C-17 military plane and were required to use bedpan-like portable toilets during a flight from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar that would take about 18 hours.

The human rights group Amnesty International issued a statement calling reports of the detainees' treatment "worrying" and their sedation a "breach of international standards."

But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the commanders overseeing the detainees had carefully studied a prison uprising in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, during which a CIA agent and Afghan forces were killed, and a shootout in which suspected Al Qaeda fighters revolted and killed the Pakistani soldiers who had imprisoned them after they crossed the border.

"[The commanders] were all aware that . . . there are among these prisoners people who are perfectly willing to kill themselves and kill other people," Rumsfeld said in a Pentagon briefing. "So I hope that they use the appropriate restraint, and that's what I suspect they will be doing."

Security became an issue within five minutes of the plane's departure at 8:20 a.m. PST, when gunshots erupted near the runway. No Marines were hit, but they returned the fire, said Cmdr. Dan Kesee, a spokesman for the Tampa, Fla.-based U.S. Central Command, which is directing the war. Afghan forces and Marines launched a search for the gunmen, but none were found.

Pentagon officials wouldn't comment on reports that the prisoners were sedated, saying they didn't want to disclose their methods to future prisoners. But at Guantanamo, the troops preparing to receive the prisoners have been practicing techniques to handcuff and sedate them. According to Amnesty International, the United Nations' Principles of Medical Ethics declares that drugs should be used only for medical reasons.

Pentagon spokesman Jay Steuck said that under the Geneva Conventions, human rights groups can request to be walked through the procedure the military is following with the prisoners. Because the prisoners did not wear uniforms in a recognized army, the Pentagon contends, the Geneva rules do not apply but are being adhered to anyway.

Security remains the foremost concern for the soldiers of the U.S. Southern Command who are transporting the prisoners to Cuba, Capt. Tom Crosson said.

"Every step has been practiced and rehearsed," he said. "There's a large amount of security presence on the aircraft. Out of concern for the safety of the air crew and the staff of the plane, their goal is to get everyone from Kandahar to Cuba safely."

Earlier this week, Amnesty International officials expressed concern at photos showing detainees in Afghanistan hooded while under guard by U.S. Marines, saying hoods may violate international standards prohibiting "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment.

On Thursday, the group also said the 6-foot-square chain-link cells surrounded by razor and concertina wire at Guantanamo may "fall below minimum standards for human treatment." The cage size falls below U.S. prison standards, the group said. The general overseeing the Guantanamo prison said conditions will improve.

"The next phase [of detention facilities] is going to be much better, but when you have 10 days or less to put something together, it's not going to be the Hilton," Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert said Wednesday.

Afghan forces holding thousands of prisoners have transferred 371 detainees into U.S. custody, including the 20 headed toward Guantanamo and those remaining at the Marine prison in Kandahar and at Bagram air base north of Kabul, the capital. All of the prisoners aboard the amphibious assault ship Bataan in the Arabian Sea were moved to other facilities except for American Talib John Walker Lindh, who remains aboard the ship.

Also Thursday, before signing a defense spending bill in a Pentagon ceremony, President Bush praised the armed forces for their work in defeating the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in custody. Before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he said, "they thought we were soft." Leaning across the podium with a smile, he added, "I don't think they think that way anymore."

As the president signed what he called "a down payment" on future security, U.S. Special Forces troops were expanding their anti-terrorism role in the Philippines. About two dozen troops are doing logistical and security planning for a larger force that could arrive within a week, a defense official told Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

In the capital, Manila, Philippine military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan said Wednesday that small groups of U.S. troops, eventually totaling more than 100, would soon start arriving. Asked about the apparent buildup, Rumsfeld said U.S. troops there had been sent to aid the local military in its hunt for terrorists who have kidnapped hostages, including at least two Americans.

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