WASHINGTON -- Under pressure from U.S. allies, President Bush has extended the protections of the Geneva Convention to Taliban captives. But the United States will not apply such protections to al-Qaida terrorists.
Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said yesterday that Bush had also decided that neither Taliban nor al-Qaida fighters captured in Afghanistan would be deemed prisoners of war.
Under the Geneva Convention, POWs and captives who face interrogation need not supply more than their name, rank and serial number. POWs are also entitled to other protections, including the rights to counsel and to a taxpayer-funded stipend.
The 1949 Geneva Convention is supposed to ensure the humane treatment of captives. The White House said Bush's decision would have little practical effect on the 510 fighters captured in Afghanistan, who are being transferred to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or are already there.
Fleischer said all the captives being held at Guantanamo -- Taliban and al-Qaida -- are being treated well. He said they were receiving sufficient food and medical care and were allowed to worship.
"It will not change their material life on a day-to-day basis," Fleischer said of the president's decision. "They will continue to be treated well, because that's what the United States does."
Administration officials said they hoped the decision would underscore Bush's commitment to the treaty and quell international criticism.
Some U.S. allies raised objections last month, after Bush had initially decided that the convention did not apply to the captives from Afghanistan. And Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged the president to reconsider that decision.
More significantly, some officials feared that a failure to extend the Geneva Convention to the Taliban captives would similarly put at risk any U.S. soldiers who might be captured overseas in some future conflict.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Bush decided to apply the convention because it "could be considered a precedent for the future."
Fleischer said the president had concluded that the Geneva protections should apply to the Taliban fighters because Afghanistan is a party to the convention -- even though the United States never regarded the former Taliban regime as legitimate.
By contrast, the spokesman said, the al-Qaida network "is an international terrorist group and cannot be considered a state party to the Geneva Convention."
Asked why the president decided not to accord the Taliban fighters the status of POWs, and the additional protections that provides, Fleischer said:
"The Taliban have not effectively distinguished themselves from the civilian population of Afghanistan. Moreover, they have not conducted their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war."
Despite the president's decision, the issue of the status and rights of the captives seized in Afghanistan remains hazy and sensitive. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, the Taliban detainees might qualify for individual hearings to determine whether they are entitled to POW status.
One provision states that only a "competent tribunal" can determine whether a prisoner is a POW or a member of some other category, such as "illegal combatant" -- a status that affords fewer rights but still requires humane treatment and eventually a hearing.
Unlawful combatants may be questioned at length so long as they are not tortured or mistreated.
It is not clear whether the administration intends to abide by that provision. Nor is it clear exactly how U.S. officials have decided which among their captives at Guantanamo are Taliban and which are al-Qaida, beyond information gleaned from interrogations and intelligence.
Some critics questioned what the United States stands to gain from excluding the al-Qaida captives from the convention guidelines. They said they worried that eliminating them could open a window of opportunity for other countries to do the same for other sorts of prisoners.
Amnesty International criticized what it called a "willful misrepresentation" of the treaty. It warned that leaving al-Qaida captives unprotected opens the door to misuse of the convention rules if American soldiers are taken prisoner.
"The convention already applies to all the prisoners [at Guantanamo]," said Alistair Hodgett, a spokesman for the group. Bush's announcement, he said, "is perpetuating this pick-and-choose approach as to whom the convention applies."
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, observed:
"What is most strange about this decision is that the administration had already committed" to treating the captives humanely. "They're just adding confusion."