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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 14:56 GMT
Q&A: What next for Guantanamo prisoners?
As the international controversy surrounding the detention of alleged al-Qaeda and Taleban members at Guantanamo Bay continues, BBC News Online asks what the immediate future is likely to hold for the detainees.

What is happening to the Guantanamo Bay prisoners?

Alleged al-Qaeda and Taleban members continue to arrive at the camp. The military authorities there are also extending the detention facilities in anticipation of new arrivals.

They will undergo intensive interrogation - though this has not started.


  • 140 prisoners detained in cages like these
  • Buckets for toilets
  • Thin foam mattresses
  • Beards shaved

    Detailed plan of cells and conditions

  • The priority for the US authorities will be to try to discover the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden - the man the US blames for attacks on its citizens.

    It is also believed that American officials will be trying to gather information on attacks that may be planned.

    Airlifting suspects from Afghanistan to Cuba has been highly controversial. The conditions under which they are being held have drawn widespread international criticism.

    A spokesman for the human rights group Amnesty International has said the photographs showing inmates chained, blindfolded and kneeling before their guards are reminiscent of torture methods used in eastern Europe in the 1970s.

    How is the US responding to this criticism?

    US officials have stressed that the pictures show the inmates who had just landed at the base. The detainees are not manacled or blindfolded while in their cells.

    The US has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the camp, and the Red Cross recommendations have been accommodated where possible.

    Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, has though been bullish in defence of American methods.

    Referring to the conditions, Mr Rumsfeld said: "It's not going to be a country club, but it is going to be humane."

    The use of chains, manacles and blindfolds is not unusual in high security prisons in the US.

    What kind of trials are being planned by Washington?

    It is not clear yet whether any kind of trials are envisaged by the US authorities.

    The prisoners could be held for interrogation only - or in what is known as preventive detention to try to halt further attacks being planned and executed.

    Another possibility is trial by an American military commission or tribunal. This would probably involve trial for violations of the laws of war, but it might encompass other charges as well.

    There might also be ordinary criminal prosecutions of individuals allegedly involved in the 11 September attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

    Given the difficulty of gathering evidence on particular individuals, it may be impossible to pursue individual prosecutions. If this is the case, international law requires that they be returned to the country of their capture.

    If trials are held and the suspects found guilty, what happens?

    Those found guilty will be sentenced by judges in the ordinary manner, according to the penalties set out in the laws that they were convicted of violating.

    Depending on the particular charges, the death penalty may be available.

    From convictions by both ordinary courts and military commissions, there will be the possibility of appeal.

    Why have the detainees been taken to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba?

    The detainees - who are not all Afghans - have been taken to Cuba for interrogation in a secure environment. Afghanistan itself is deemed unsuitable by US officials because the American facilities there are inadequate.

    The detainees are being taken to a place outside of US territory to minimise the application of legal constraints that might otherwise apply.

    As long as the prisoners are not on US soil they are denied the rights guaranteed to criminals under the American constitution, such as a presumption of innocence and a trial by jury.

    What is the status of the detainees under international law?

    The US insists that the detainees do not qualify for prisoner-of-war treatment under the Geneva Conventions, because they are not members of the regular Afghan armed force - nor do they meet the criteria for prisoner-of-war status for voluntary forces.

    These criteria include wearing a uniform and carrying arms openly. Washington has categorised the detainees as "unlawful combatants".

    United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and other commentators have argued that the armed conflict in Afghanistan is of an international nature and the law of international armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions, should appply.

    What does the legal argument mean for the detainees?

    If the alleged al-Qaeda and Taleban members are not legally prisoners of war, then they are not entitled to various protections provided by the Geneva Conventions.

    These protections include certain restrictions on the interrogation of prisoners, the prohibition of cruel and degrading treatment, and a ban on torture.

    The detainees do enjoy certain protections under the general international law of human rights, which is binding on the US. This requires humane conditions of detention and fair trials in the event of prosecutions.

    It is also possible that American courts will, in due course, provide some safeguards on the basis of American constitutional law.

    See also:

    14 Jan 02 | Americas
    New captives arrive on Cuba
    14 Jan 02 | South Asia
    Harsh detention for Afghan prisoners
    15 Jan 02 | UK Politics
    Straw's concerns for Cuba captives
    28 Dec 01 | Americas
    Destination Guantanamo Bay
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