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Bush Makes Complicated Decision on Afghan Prisoners - 2002-02-08


President Bush has made a complicated decision regarding detainees captured during the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. Some of those detainees will now be covered by the Geneva Convention, but none of them will be called prisoners-of-war.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the Geneva Convention applies to the conflict in Afghanistan and captured Taleban fighters. While the United States never recognized Taleban rule, Mr. Fleischer says, its fighters will be treated according to the principles of the 1949 convention, because Afghanistan is a party to it.

But the White House makes clear none of those Taleban fighters are entitled to prisoner of war status, because, Mr. Fleischer says, they fail to satisfy Geneva Convention conditions that they serve in a uniformed, military hierarchy carrying arms openly and conducting their military operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

"The Taleban have not effectively distinguished themselves from the civilian population of Afghanistan. Moreover, they have not conducted their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Instead, they have knowingly adopted and provided support to the unlawful terrorist objectives of the al-Qaida," he said.

As for al-Qaida terrorists, Mr. Fleischer says, they have no protections under the Geneva Convention.

"Al-Qaida is an international terrorist group, and cannot be considered a state, party to the Geneva Convention. Its members, therefore, are not covered by the Geneva Convention and are not entitled to POW status under the treaty," he said.

Mr. Fleischer calls it a "just, principled" decision, which does not affect the treatment of any of the more than 150 detainees held at a U.S. military base in Cuba. There will be no change in what he calls the "good treatment" of al-Qaida and Taleban detainees. He says they will continue to receive proper medical care, regular meals, showers, clothing, the freedom to worship and the opportunity to meet privately with officials from the Red Cross.

"What the president is saying here is that there is an important legal principle recognizing that Afghanistan is a member state that agreed to the terms of the Geneva Convention," he said. "So, the president is making a distinction between the al-Qaida and the Taleban. But when it comes to the classification as POW's, neither group will be given POW legal designation, although they will continue to be treated humanely, in accordance with America's values, which are reflected in the Convention."

Prisoner-of-war status is an important distinction, as POW's are not required to divulge information about future military operations. Under their current designation as "unlawful combatants," the detainees in Cuba are being interrogated about future terrorist attacks. Prisoners-of-war are also entitled to a stipend, and certain comforts, including tobacco or musical instruments.

Without prisoner-of-war status, human rights groups say, the detainees may have less grounds to argue for humane treatment and fair trials. The group, Human Rights Watch, says the U-S government cannot go to war in Afghanistan, and then assert that the laws of war do not apply.

Observers say President Bush's decision may be meant to offer some protection for U.S. troops who might be captured in the future, as, Mr. Fleischer says, U.S. soldiers meet prisoner-of-war conditions that they are properly uniformed and follow recognized customs of war.

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