Scrutinizing Camp X-Ray

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Amnesty International, the prominent human rights group, is demanding access to the prisoners currently held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. spoke with Avner Gidron, senior policy adviser at Amnesty International, about the organization's request, the U.S. government's response and growing global pressure to expose the conditions at the camp.

Amnesty is asking for access to the prisoners. What are your primary concerns?

We do have some concerns about the possible ill treatment.of prisoners. From what we've seen the conditions don't meet basic international standards required when holding people in detention. More troubling is the legal status and the fact that as far as we know these people are being treated as if they're not legal personages. For example, as far as we know, no one has informed them of the charges against them or told them what their rights are.

What role can Amnesty International play in this situation?

We think it's important that AI and other human rights organizations that do play a more public role can visit and we can disclose any concerns and address the findings with authorities. As with any situation in which we're visiting people deprived of their liberty, we'd like to speak with them in confidence. we'd like to know how they've been treated, have they been advised of their rights, and have they been permitted to speak with a lawyer.

Have other groups been allowed to visit?

The Red Cross has been allowed to visit, which is something that we welcome, and hopefully could lead to improvements in conditions. Unfortunately, as part of its role the Red Cross is not permitted to make public any of its findings, so the rest of us still have no idea what's going on at the camp.

Have you been surprised by the Pentagon's defense of the conditions at the camp?

It's ironic, in a way, because any time other countries have tried to use military tribunals for trying prisoners, including U.S. prisoners, the U.S. government has rightly protested and secured fair trials. So the U.S., which has a record of standing up for prisoners' rights, is now defying its own convictions.

On the issue of identifying these people as POW's, we find the Pentagon response disappointing. We feel it's not for the US military to just arbitrarily decide who is and is not a POW during the course of an international conflict. Doing so sets a very dangerous precedent for treatment of U.S. prisoners, for example, or UK prisoners. The wording of the Geneva Convention clearly dictates these people are POW's — it's not up to Donald Rumsfeld to determine otherwise.

The Pentagon has a lot of public support, in the U.S. anyway, for treating prisoners any way it sees fit. Is that sentiment posing a problem for you?

I don't think there's any denying the US government is emboldened by the fact they have such strong public support for the way they've handled the war in Afghanistan. They feel no pressure domestically to change anything; the only pressure they feel is from other governments and from international public opinion.

The idea is, because these are horrible people who are ostensibly responsible for the atrocities of September 11th, it's hard to muster up much sympathy for them — and that's a gut reaction, and quite understandable. But that of course is making major presumptions about who each of these people are and what they've done. That's why it's so important that standards of international law be adhered to — otherwise, relatives of September 11th attacks cannot ever be confident the right people have been captured and have paid for their crimes.