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Bush: Detainees Treated 'In Spirit of Geneva Conventions' - 2002-01-29

President Bush says fighters captured in Afghanistan are not prisoners-of-war. The Bush administration has been criticized by human rights groups, which say detainees transferred to a U.S. military base in Cuba are not getting their full rights under the Geneva conventions governing treatment of prisoners-of-war.

President Bush says all the detainees are being treated in the spirit of the Geneva conventions, with proper medical care and humane treatment. But it is the letter of those conventions that concerns human rights groups, which want those detainees classified as prisoners-of-war.

The president says that is not going to happen, because members of the al-Qaida terrorist group are not part of a national army. Mr. Bush met with his national security team Monday to discuss the issue, and said he will make an announcement soon about the detainees' full legal status. "I am looking at the legalities involved with the Geneva Convention," he said. "In either case, however I make my decision, these detainees will be well-treated. We are not going to call them prisoners-of-war in either case. And the reason why is, al-Qaida is not a known military. These are killers. These are terrorists. They know no countries."

It is an important distinction, as prisoners-of-war are not required to divulge information about future military operations. Under their current designation as "unlawful combatants," the 158 detainees in Cuba are being interrogated about future terrorist attacks.

Without prisoner-of-war status, human rights groups say, the detainees may have less grounds to argue for humane treatment and fair trials. Human Rights Watch on Monday sent a letter to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, urging the Bush administration to reconsider its prisoner-of-war position.

The human rights group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, said, "the U.S. government cannot choose to wage war in Afghanistan with guns, bombs and soldiers, and then assert the laws of war do not apply."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the detention facility Sunday, and said he had "absolutely full confidence in the way they are being handled and treated." All the detainees are Muslim and are being allowed to conduct prayers five times a day, in accordance with their religion. They are also being allowed to write to their families, with the letters delivered through the Red Cross.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister says many of those detainees are Saudi nationals, and he is asking the United States to return them to Saudi Arabia for questioning. President Bush said he appreciates the request, and will take it under consideration. "There's a lot of Saudi citizens that chose to fight for al-Qaida, and/or the Taleban, that we want to know more about. And, so, we will make a decision on a case-by-case basis, as to whether they go back to Saudi Arabia, or not," he said.

Determined not to grant these detainees prisoner-of-war status, President Bush must now decide to what extent they are covered under the Geneva conventions, in what White House officials say is an "unprecedented" war against terrorism, instead of a conflict between two nation states.