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Tuesday, 29 January, 2002, 10:08 GMT
Bush reconsiders prisoners' rights
Colin Powell (left), President Bush (centre), and Donald Rumsfeld
President Bush's advisers are reported to be split
US President George W Bush says he is reviewing the legal status of captured Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters held in Cuba, in what could be a step towards improving prison conditions that have been criticised internationally.

But he ruled out giving the men POW status, arguing that they were "killers" and "terrorists" who did not belong to a recognised army.

I'll listen to all the legalisms and announce my decision when I make it

President Bush
"We are not going to call them prisoners of war," Mr Bush said, although he repeatedly referred to them as "prisoners" before correcting himself and saying "detainees."

"And the reason why is al-Qaeda is not a known military," he said. "These are killers, these are terrorists, they know no countries."

The US has come under pressure from some countries and human rights groups who say the fighters should be treated as prisoners of war, or that at least the US should recognise that the Geneva Convention on the rights of prisoners applies to them.

Secretary of State Colin Powell believes the convention should apply, while others like Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld say the detainees should be treated as "unlawful combatants".

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke
Victoria Clarke: Looking with new eyes at the issue
The arguments are important because they will determine what level of rights are given to 158 detainees captured in Afghanistan and currently held at Camp X-Ray at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President Bush said there had been an "interesting" discussion on the detainees' legal rights during Monday's meeting of the National Security Council.

He said all were agreed the detainees would be treated humanely and at least within the spirit of the Geneva Convention.

He said he would make a decision on their legal status later.

"I'll figure out, I'll listen to all the legalisms and announce my decision when I make it," President Bush said.

NSC 'split'

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said the "unconventional" nature of the US-led war on terror and its campaign in Afghanistan meant it might be time for a rethink.

"So every aspect of it, including the Geneva Convention and how it might be applied, should be looked at with new eyes and new thoughts," she said.

Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay
The US says it is not mistreating the prisoners
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Bush administration agreed that "core principles" of the conventions should be observed, including providing food and medicine to detainees.

However, the national security team is split on whether the detainees are covered under the full weight of the Geneva Conventions, he said.

POW status would give the detainees extra legal rights under the Geneva Convention. Recognised prisoners of war have to be charged or repatriated at the end of a conflict, and they are expected to give only their name, rank and number when questioned.

US newspapers said the reason for the shift advocated by Mr Powell was that the State Department wanted to ensure that if any US irregular troops - such as CIA operatives - were captured in Afghanistan, they too would be covered by the convention.

Afghan jail concerns

As attention is focused on the treatment of prisoners in Cuba, a US human rights group says it is ignoring the appalling conditions faced by thousands of former combatants in Shebarghan prison in northern Afghanistan.

Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights sent a team to the jail, west of Mazar-e-Sharif, where the prison commander told them "many, many, many" prisoners had already died.

Epidemics of dysentery and yellow jaundice have afflicted the prison population of 3,000 to 3,500 Afghan and Pakistani prisoners.

The team heard that up to 110 prisoners were living in cells designed for only 15, while a single source of water for washing - a pipe protruding from a wall in a muddy courtyard - was shared by 1,000 men.

Calls from allies

The US is also coming under pressure from some of its allies whose citizens have been captured with the Taleban or al-Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia, which said that more than 100 of its nationals were being held at Guantanamo, called on the US to send them back for interrogation at home.

President Bush said the decision whether to send detainees home would be taken on a case-by-case basis.

Britain, which has three citizens detained in Guantanamo and another two held in Afghanistan, said last week it wanted the US to return the suspects to stand trial at home.

French foreign ministry officials are also visiting the Guantanamo Bay base to investigate reports that French citizens are among the prisoners captured in Afghanistan.

The BBC's Jon Leyne
"The dispute is whether they are covered by the Geneva Convention"
International lawyer Helene Richman
"This is a question of international law"
Charles Glass, US journalist and ex-hostage
"I wish Donald Rumsfeld would read the US constitution"
See also:

29 Jan 02 | Americas
Rift in Bush's team over detainees
28 Jan 02 | Americas
Who is a prisoner of war?
27 Jan 02 | Americas
No POW rights for Cuba prisoners
22 Jan 02 | Americas
Judge's 'doubts' over Cuba prisoners
22 Jan 02 | Americas
ICRC cautions US over pictures
20 Jan 02 | Americas
In pictures: Camp X-Ray prisoners
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