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Red Cross May Visit Taleban, al-Qaida Prisoners in Cuba - 2002-01-12

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC, has said its delegates could visit suspected Taleban and al-Qaida prisoners at a U.S. Navy base in Cuba as early as next week. A first group of 20 detainees has been flown from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay.

The Red Cross said American officials have agreed to give its delegates unrestricted access to the prisoners. Red Cross spokesman Kim Gordon-Bates has told VOA his organization is in the process of assembling delegates who speak languages spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Arabic and Russian.

"A visit next week is certainly quite possible. The ICRC would want to go down and talk to the camp commanders anyway. We want to talk to the various people to establish the rules of the game, and to see what is possible and what we do, and the function is explained so there are no bad surprises. The next step would be to see the detainees themselves, the prisoners themselves, to register them, so they exist within the framework of the ICRC policy and everything. And, we would want to talk to the prisoners individually, without witnesses, to hear what they have to say," he said.

Mr. Gordon-Bates said private visits are important, so prisoners can speak freely, without fear of intimidation. He said detainees are also allowed to write confidential messages to their families.

He has said Red Cross delegates will ensure the prisoners are treated humanely under international law, and that any problems will be reported to the American authorities.

Mr. Gordon-Bates said the Red Cross representatives will conduct repeat visits to make sure their recommendations are followed.

The United States said it does not consider the suspected Taleban and al-Qaida fighters to be prisoners of war, but "unlawful combatants." But the ICRC spokesman said the detainees are considered prisoners of war under terms of the Geneva Convention.

"A prisoner of war cannot be accused of taking up arms. That is one of the big distinguishing factors, or one of the parameters, that define a prisoner of war. If you take up arms to defend your country and you lose, the victor cannot accuse you of taking up arms to defend your country. However, if you in the process of taking up arms and defending your country commit a crime - let us say you murder somebody or you steal something or whatever - and that crime can be documented, and you can be charged on an individual basis, not on a blanket basis," he said.

Mr. Gordon-Bates said prisoners who are tried are entitled to due process, including access to a lawyer.

More than 300 other Taleban and al-Qaida prisoners are reported held by U.S. forces in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. They too are expected to be transferred to Guantanamo Bay.