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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 18:35 GMT 19:35 UK
Legal limbo of Guantanamo's prisoners
By Monica Whitlock
BBC correspondent in Kabul

With the arrival of 30 new detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the United States is now holding more prisoners there than ever before.

Prisoners in cages
More prisoners have recently arrived from Afghanistan
Most of the new intake are Afghans, captured during the US campaign against the Taleban in 2001 and 2002, and held in Afghanistan ever since without charge.

Said Abaseen is a taxi driver from the Afghan capital, Kabul.

He set out on an ordinary day's work last July - and ended up in Cuba, 15,000 kilometres (9,300 miles) from home.

He was held at Guantanamo Bay for nine months, before being classified as of low intelligence value and sent back to Kabul in March - part of the first substantial group to be set free.

He was never charged and still does not know why he was arrested.

Nobody knows exactly who is being held, but the US Government says there are roughly 660 people currently detained at Guantanamo Bay, from over 40 countries.

Two weeks ago, US defence department officials announced that they had three children between the ages of 13 and 15 detained at Guantanamo.

'Unlawful combatants'

A hunger strike, last year, and a string of suicide attempts drew attention to conditions in Guantanamo.

Since those early months, much has changed at the camp.

Prisoners have been moved out of the steel-mesh cages of the first makeshift camp - called Camp X-ray - into solid buildings.

Wendy Patten of Human Rights Watch says that the prisoners are now living in "Camp Delta", a facility which has plumbing and ventilation. "It's apparently being used for those who are beginning to prepare to complete their detention and move them on to release.

As I understand it, technically unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Conventions
US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld
" We understand they're allowed out a couple of times a week for exercise."

The Red Cross ensures that prisoners are allowed to write to their families, and the children in the camp are given some lessons.

But Human Rights Watch is continuing to insist the US Government respects the human rights of their prisoners.

Yet US officials insist that there is nothing inhumane or degrading in the prisoners' treatment.

Donald Rumsfeld, uses the term "unlawful combatants" to describe the detainees at Guantanamo:

"As I understand it, technically unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Conventions."

This means that the prisoners do not need to be released at the end of hostilities - as prisoners of war are.

Under this classification, the prisoners are not charged, but nor are they allowed access to any legal process.

Military tribunals

British lawyers, such as Louise Christian, are doing what they can to help some of the prisoners.

But as they cannot meet with their clients, they have to represent their families, with whom the inmates communicate by letter.

Like other lawyers, she has found her work thwarted by a legal maze within a maze.

Taleban prisoners in Afghanistan
Prisoners do not have rights under US law
Guantanamo Bay is on a perpetual lease, granted in 1901, from the Cuban Government.

And because these are non-US citizens on non-sovereign US territory, that means that the US courts do not have jurisdiction.

The conundrum of Guantanamo may, however, be opening up a little.

Last month, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, wrote a strongly worded letter to Donald Rumsfeld, deploring the imprisonment of children and old people, and saying that eight governments friendly to the US had complained about the holding of their citizens.

Guantanamo, he said, could undermine US efforts to sustain international approval for its foreign policy.

Nothing definite has been announced, but the word in Washington is that some prisoners will go before military tribunals in the months to come.

And these tribunals will have the power to impose the death penalty.

It will, it is said, be up to President Bush to decide on any executions.

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