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Red Cross: US broke Geneva Conventions - but Blair has 'no substantial complaints' about treatment of al-Qa'ida suspects

22 January 2002

The Red Cross accused the United States yesterday of violating the Geneva Conventions by releasing photographs of Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters held at Guantanamo Bay.

The organisation, whose inspection teams are interviewing detainees at the US base in Cuba, said the conventions forbade exposing prisoners of war to "public curiosity". The Red Cross believes the men shown shackled and wearing masks and goggles in photographs released at the weekend should be treated as prisoners of war rather than "unlawful combatants", as the US calls them. Darcey Christen, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the US had contravened the third Geneva Convention by releasing the photographs.

The European Union also waded into the dispute when its security chief, Javier Solana, also said the detainees should be treated as prisoners of war. He said on Spanish television: "For us, treatment of people like this should be as laid down by the international conventions which of course, for Europeans, are part of international law."

Downing Street said the three Britons among the prisoners at Camp X-Ray had not been tortured or ill-treated and, according to British officials, had "no substantial complaints".

A further 14 prisoners arrived at Camp X-Ray yesterday, bringing the total to 158. The men all require medical treatment for war injuries and were carried from a C-141 cargo plane on stretchers. A Washington spokesman said: "They were restrained in a manner appropriate, in a way that would not aggravate their medical conditions."

The US continues to adopt a bullish stance over the prisoners, whom the Attorney General, John Ashcroft, described days ago as "war criminals". Washington has said they are being treated humanely, even if their conditions are not comfortable. It says it is being "guided for the most part" by the Geneva Conventions.

However, a federal judge in Los Angeles will hear a petition today backed by Ramsey Clark, a former attorney general, and other civil rights campaigners, who claim the detention of prisoners who have not been charged is illegal.

There are signs that the Pentagon, perhaps surprised at the extent of the outrage, may be bending a little. As well as passing out copies of the Koran and makeshift prayer mats to the prisoners, it said it was arranging for a Muslim cleric to be brought to the base to lead prayers and for the call to prayer to be broadcast over the camp's public address system.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said the report by British officials revealed that the British prisoners had not been ill-treated. The three Britons "were in good physical health and there was no sign of any mistreatment", he said."No one is pretending that the facilities are luxurious. They are not. They are basic and fit the requirements of the detainees."

The British report said the prisoners wore masks and goggles only on arrival and shackles only outside the cells. They were getting three meals a day, including a pre-packed Islamic meal for lunch, and as much water as they needed. They also received daily medical checks. Downing Street confirmed that one of the Britons is Feroz Abbasi, 22, from Croydon, south London, but declined to name the others. All three had given the British team messages for their families.

In an emergency Commons statement yesterday, Ben Bradshaw, a Foreign Office minister, denied claims that inmates had been tortured and humiliated. He said: "Both we and the Americans are well aware that we will be judged by a higher standard than the Taliban and al-Qa'ida and, on the basis of the report, I can confirm these standards are being met." He also said the Foreign Office had been in contact with the US government to discuss whether the inmates should be treated as prisoners of war and whether Britons threatened with the death penalty should be extradited to the UK for trial.

The minister faced a series of protests from Labour MPs. Ann Clwyd, who chairs the all-party group on human rights, said: "We have standards in Britain and we cannot let those standards drop."

Andrew Buncombe (in Washington), Andrew Grice, and Nigel Morris Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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