To the Editor:
The United States is on slippery ground in asserting that the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters detained at Guantanamo Bay are “unlawful combatants” and not prisoners of war (news article, Jan. 12). Article 5 of the third Geneva Convention requires that if there is any doubt regarding the status of captured combatants, they must be treated as prisoners of war until a “competent tribunal” determines their status.
Taliban fighters as part of the Taliban army are most likely prisoners of war. Al Qaeda fighters, to the extent they wore a distinctive sign like a black headband or took up arms to resist invaders and carried arms openly, are also prisoners of war.
Prisoners of war are to be housed under conditions similar to that of American soldiers and must be prosecuted for any war crimes in the same courts and under the same procedures as American soldiers. This would mean trials before courts-martial and not military commissions.
MICHAEL RATNER, NY
The writer is vice president, Center for Constitutional Rights.
Text of Article
A NATION CHALLENGED: THE PRISONERS; First ‘Unlawful Combatants’ Seized in Afghanistan Arrive at U.S. Base in Cuba
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYEJAN. 12, 2002
Twenty prisoners from the war in Afghanistan arrived in Cuba today, emerging from their Air Force cargo plane in orange prison jumpsuits and face masks, some of them shackled at the legs and all of them manacled. One had been sedated, Pentagon officials said.
According to reports from a Pentagon pool of reporters at the United States Naval station at Guantánamo Bay, the prisoners were escorted under heavy military guard and met by a swarm of marines in helmets with masks, some carrying riot shields and all armed with rifles. Some of the prisoners resisted their captors and were pushed to their knees on the tarmac before rising and being taken to individual wire cages.
This first batch of prisoners was considered so dangerous and so bent on destruction that Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they ”would gnaw hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down.”
They arrived at Guantánamo at 1:50 this afternoon, having left Afghanistan 27 hours earlier. As their plane left the airport at Kandahar, which is occupied by American forces, soldiers on the perimeter of the base came under fire from a small number of unknown assailants.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the prisoners ”unlawful combatants,” distinguishing them from prisoners of war. ”Unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. ”We have indicated that we do plan to, for the most part, treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva Conventions, to the extent they are appropriate.”
In concrete terms, he and General Myers said they would be receiving ”culturally appropriate food,” would be allowed to practice their religion and that a news media pool could not take their pictures.
Jamie Fellner, of Human Rights Watch, said that unlawful combatants were not entitled to any rights under the Geneva rules but that under international humanitarian laws, every captured fighter was to be treated humanely and that her group did not consider the wire cages humane.
Mr. Rumsfeld implied that there was nothing special about these prisoners — ”I don’t even know their names” — and suggested that they had been sent to Cuba simply to make way for more prisoners being captured in Kandahar. ”We just have to keep the flow going, and that’s what’s taking place,” he said. The United States is now holding 445 prisoners in the region, including John Walker Lindh, the 20-year-old Californian, who is on an American ship.
American military officials at the Kandahar Airport base said today that 8 to 14 snipers had attacked the outskirts of the airport on Thursday night, engaging in a firefight with marines for up to 40 minutes.
Marine officials said the attack did not seem related to the flight, which had been kept secret.
The incident began at 8:04 P.M. when flares were fired toward the runway from a grassy area north of the airport, as the loaded C-17 was waiting on the runway, officials said. At 8:22, the airplane took off.
At 8:30 the snipers began firing with AK-47’s and machine guns, said Capt. Dan Greenwood, the operation officer for Battalion Landing Team 3-6, who led the marines’ response.
At one point, the snipers and marines were only about 300 yards apart, Captain Greenwood said.
One marine involved in the incident, Chad Metzger, 23, of Detroit, said he fired 180 rounds of ammunition in the incident. ”I counted them out this morning,” he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld asserted today that the interrogation of hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners in Afghanistan — as well as documents, videotapes and computer hard drives seized from safe houses and command posts — had provided a bounty of useful information about terrorist activity around the world.
He said, for example, that investigators had learned from prisoners that two senior Taliban leaders whom he declined to name were probably killed by American bombs in December or earlier. That would bring the total number of senior Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders captured or killed to about 15, senior Pentagon officials said.
Mr. Rumsfeld also said that the Pakistani government had broached the possibility of having the United States remove some of its military equipment at air bases in Pakistan to free up those airfields for Pakistani forces, if they move to a more intensive war footing.
Pakistani military officers confirmed that Pakistan had told the United States that in the event of conflict with India, it would need to make use of two of the four air bases it had made available to the United States for the war in Afghanistan.
Senior Pentagon officials said that the United States was already planning on moving some of its equipment into Kyrgyzstan as well as Afghanistan, where American forces have improved airfields at Kandahar, Bagram and Mazar-i-Sharif.
The Pentagon has been using the bases in Pakistan for cargo planes, search and rescue aircraft and Special Operation forces aircraft moving in and out of Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials have told the Americans that they could require use of two of those bases — in Jacobabad, north of Karachi, and in Pasni, on the coast to the west of Karachi. The Americans could continue using the bases but would have to share them with Pakistani aircraft, officials said.
Two other bases in the western desert, at Dalbandin and Shamsi, which have been used for refueling and for special operations, are expected to remain solely for the use of the American coalition, the Pakistani officers said.
Pakistan has also told the United States that in the event of war with India, most of the 61,600 Pakistani troops now devoted to sealing the border with Afghanistan, searching for Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and protecting bases would have to be withdrawn.