British debate U.S. treatment of terror detainees

Photos from Cuba arouse loud protest over suspects' rights

January 22, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- For nearly a week, Britain has been engrossed by the fate of al-Qaida and Taliban suspects held by U.S. troops in Cuba.

"Tortured," headlined the right-wing Mail on Sunday over a photograph of the suspects, shown kneeling and manacled, blinded by blackout goggles and face masks, and wearing orange jumpsuits and heavy mittens after arriving at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

"What the hell are you doing in our name, Mister Blair?" questioned the left-wing Mirror yesterday in a blistering front-page attack on what the paper termed "The Camp X-Ray Scandal."

Faced with a growing political dispute and bad publicity, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government went on the offensive yesterday, confirming that among those held in Cuba were three British nationals who were in "good health" and who had expressed no complaints about their treatment.

Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw branded as "completely false" allegations that the suspects were tortured.

Bradshaw told the House of Commons that the "recent pictures of detainees, featured widely in our media, were taken on arrival at the base, where security needs were paramount."

"The House should not forget that we are talking about some of the most dangerous men in the world, who in the past have displayed both murderous and suicidal tendencies, and often both together," Bradshaw added.

He said the British prisoners held in Cuba "spoke without inhibition" to British officials.

"The detainees are free to conduct religious services, they have prayer mats and calls to prayers are broadcast over the Camp X-Ray P.A. system," Bradshaw said.

He said they were given "as much drinking water as they wanted" and three meals a day.

Bradshaw said the United States and Britain "are well aware that we will be judged by a higher standard than the Taliban and al-Qaida."

After standing "shoulder to shoulder" with the United States for months in the war against terrorism, the debate over the fate of the detainees shows that small splits could lie beneath the surface.

The left wing of Blair's ruling Labor Party harbors doubts about the war against terrorism, is often skeptical about U.S. intentions and boasts a long record of concern over human rights issues. There is genuine debate about the legal status of the detainees, who have been labeled "unlawful combatants," not prisoners of war.

The British news media are lapping up a story that features provocative pictures downloaded from a U.S. Department of Defense Web site.

Three British detainees add to the volatile mix. Only one has been identified -- Feroz Abbasi, 22, a former computer student from the London area of Croydon, who was captured in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.

According to news reports, Abbasi attended and later moved into a North London mosque in Finsbury Park that was headed by a radical cleric; he traveled to Pakistan in 2000 and then on to Afghanistan. Former friends and neighbors said they were stunned to hear that Abbasi is among the detainees.

Geraint Davies, a member of Parliament whose House of Commons district covers Abassi's former home, said he wants his constituent to be treated humanely.

"It is unclear to me whether he is an al-Qaida terrorist or a Taliban soldier fighting the Northern Alliance or a religious tourist who has gone over to Kabul to be with people who are like-minded," Davies said.

He said pictures of the detainees in shackles might play well in the United States but not in Britain and could be used as a recruiting tool by Muslim extremists.

"The U.S., because of its military and economic power, is positioning itself as the guardian of the free world and an international policeman," he said. "It's important in the case of these detainees that they're treated properly or it will fuel American hatred. We've done so much so well so far, and to fall down on this seems ham-fisted."

In other developments:

A planeload of detainees arrived yesterday at the U.S. base in Cuba. MSNBC said 17 detainees were aboard the flight.

A federal judge in Los Angeles agreed to hear a petition from U.S. civil rights advocates, including former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, challenging the detentions.

The Netherlands joined the debate, demanding that the United States recognize the detainees as prisoners of war with rights under the Geneva Convention.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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