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Guantanamo Detainees Being Held Legally, Official Says

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 2006 – Detainees at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are being held in accordance with the laws of armed conflict, John Bellinger, a State Department legal adviser, said here today.

"The vast majority of the people who are in Guantanamo are being held under the typical laws of war," Bellinger said at a State Department Foreign Press Center briefing. "When we went into Afghanistan with the coalition, that was clearly a state of international armed conflict in Afghanistan, and clearly, the laws of war would apply to that."

Bellinger said most of the detainees were captured on the battlefield, but are not categorized as prisoners of war because al Qaeda is not a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, and "neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda met any of the definitions of the term 'prisoner of war'" outlined in the conventions.

Due to security threats, "the Geneva Conventions themselves make very clear ... that there would be certain categories of individuals -- spies or 'saboteurs,' ... who should be considered to have forfeited their rights of communication with the outside world," he said

Bellinger commented on a forthcoming U.N. report regarding the detainees at Guantanamo.

"The U.S. government has seen an advance draft of it," he said. "We think that the report is fundamentally flawed in its procedures and is riddled with inaccuracies and really was done in a way, frankly, that discredits the report overall and the work of the rapporteurs in this effort."

Bellinger criticized the U.N. for writing the report without visiting Guantanamo, even though they had been invited to do so.

He made the point that activities at Guantanamo are transparent and that more than 1,000 members of the media, numerous members of the U.S. Congress, and representatives from the International Committee for the Red Cross have repeatedly visited the facility.

"So instead, the report of the rapporteurs, which purports to be a balanced review, is based only on statements from members of al Qaeda or the Taliban who've been released from Guantanamo or their defense counsel," he said.

He also slammed the report for insinuating that force-feeding detainees engaged in a hunger strike amounted to torture.

"It's a little bit difficult to understand how the U.N. rapporteurs, without having interviewed anybody in the U.S. government, would accept at face value the assertions of the defense counsel that this definitely amounted to torture," he said.

Bellinger said the report even got the definition of torture wrong.

"In the Convention Against Torture, the convention says that torture is a activity that is specifically intended to cause severe medical pain or suffering," he said. "Well, I think that on its face, that no one would accept that our doctors, by giving someone food and nourishment, are intending to inflict severe physical pain or suffering on them."

He said that hunger strikers are fed through feeding tubes.

"It's a very, very small feeding tube. It's exactly the same procedure as used in any hospital in the United States for any individual who needs to be fed directly," he said. "It is a tiny, four-millimeter tube in which lubricant is actually used, and the detainees are offered the choice of a painkiller, if they want one."

When asked if detainees should be tried or released, Bellinger reiterated that U.S. operations in Afghanistan are part of an international armed conflict and the detainees picked up there were participants, therefore, the appropriate legal procedure is to hold them until the end of the conflict.

"We release individuals who we think cease to pose a threat," he added.

Bellinger also talked about the trial of Saddam Hussein.

"We've seen the press stories coming out about Saddam's antics and disrespect for the court," he said. "What's actually being missed is in addition to the antics of Saddam and other defendants, is that justice is in fact being done."

He said Iraqis see the difficulties associated with the trial, but "it's unfortunate that the stories are not focusing equally on the witnesses who are coming forward to tell their stories of the abuse that they suffered. ... This is actually what the Iraqis are seeing.'

Bellinger also briefly commented on new Abu Ghraib prison photos that were shown today on Australian television depicting "conduct that is absolutely disgusting."

"It's unfortunate, though, that the photographs are continuing to come out because I think it simply fans the flames at a time that sentiments on these issues are raw around the world," he said. "People know, the world knows, that this behavior went on. It was described. It's been prosecuted. There's no value that can be added."

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