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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Fairness Urged for Detainees in Cuba

Response: Red Cross and U.N. leaders call for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters held at Guantanamo Bay to be treated as POWs.

January 18, 2002|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — As the Red Cross prepared to interview suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters held in Cuba, U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson urged the United States on Thursday to treat the prisoners according to international law and not to "fudge or blur the edges."

"It is extremely important that the legal status of those detained in Guantanamo Bay is clarified," said Robinson, a former president of Ireland.

"They were combatants in an international conflict. It may be that some of them have also been involved in the Al Qaeda conspiracy, that's quite likely, but they are entitled to POW status or, if that is defeated, there is provision in the Geneva Convention that it goes before a tribunal," she said at a conference in Dublin, the Irish capital.

The U.S. government calls the prisoners "unlawful combatants" and says they are not guaranteed rights under the 1949 Geneva Convention covering prisoners of war.

International Committee of the Red Cross officials were expected to hold private interviews with the prisoners today. A spokesman for the Red Cross said the organization also believed the detainees ought to be treated as prisoners of war.

In Britain, America's closest ally in Europe, concern has grown this week over treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has backed the U.S. position, but he is under pressure from members of his party and the opposition to ensure that the Guantanamo prisoners--including three British citizens--are treated humanely.

The Church of England issued a plea Thursday for the United States to treat the prisoners with "humanity and dignity" and to apply "proportionate and measured" justice.

"Every action must be tested against principles of justice," bishops said after a three-day gathering of the House of Bishops in York, England.

"Ends do not justify means. Those who proclaim that their cause is just must act justly."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Wednesday that he does not "feel the slightest concern about [the prisoners'] treatment." They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else," he said.

Guardian newspaper columnist Hugo Young responded that there was "a sense of generalized vengeance in what Rumsfeld had to say. Having failed to catch Osama bin Laden, the U.S. is evidently adopting the alternative of netting any number of Taliban and Al Qaeda and sticking them with collective responsibility for the monstrous mass murder at the Pentagon and World Trade Center."

On Wednesday, Blair faced a grilling from members of his own Labor Party and the opposition in Parliament over the prisoners' treatment.

Labor's Kevin McNamara warned the prime minister that the West was in "danger of losing the high moral ground."

Blair agreed that prisoners must be treated humanely. He defended U.S. actions, repeating official assertions that the prisoners were being fed properly and allowed exercise and showers, and adding that they were "highly dangerous people."

Liberal Democratic leader Charles Kennedy said the West must seek a better standard of behavior than the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

"We must demonstrate that our values remain above those who seek to destroy them," Kennedy said.

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