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They are prisoners, after all



Published: Wed, January 23, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Al-Qaida prisoners in Cuba have no complaint, and their advocates in this country and abroad who claim that the prisoners' rights are being violated should at least consider the possibility that the United States is making the best of a bad situation.

What would the critics of the United States have this country do? Turn the prisoners over to local tribal chiefs who would either kill them or set them free, depending on the level of ethnic enmity involved or the size of the bribe offered? Or bring the prisoners to the United States and give them the protection of a Constitution for which they have nothing but contempt? Or imprison them in hovels in Afghanistan? Or set them free, so that they can regroup, foment civil war and pursue acts of further terrorism against the West?

What, in their gentle wisdom, would these kind-hearted souls do with these Al-Qaida and Taliban enemies? We don't know, and we doubt very much that they know. We don't even know what the United States intends to do with its prisoners. It is still too soon to make decisions.

POW question: A valid question remains as to whether these are prisoners of war subject to all the rules of the Geneva Convention, which applies to organized, uniformed fighting forces. That could arguably apply to Taliban soldiers. It would not apply to Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaida terrorists.

For now, the prisoners have suffered some discomfort, especially during travel. They were shackled and blindfolded. So be it. They are dangerous men, some of whom were involved in uprisings while being held in Afghanistan.

But for now, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pointed out Tuesday, the detainees are receiving "warm showers, toiletries, water, clean clothes, blankets, regular, culturally appropriate meals, prayer mats, and the right to practice their religions," in addition to medical care, writing materials and visits from the International Red Cross.

And while they are presently being housed in cage-like enclosures, the accommodations are temporary. They were erected in less than three weeks ,and Marine Brig. Gen. Mike Lehnert, who is in charge of the detention mission, said there are plans to build a prison that will meet federal standards.

Good start: The United States has historically complied with the Geneva Convention and has treated its prisoners humanely. The fact that it has already given Red Cross observers access to Camp X-ray indicates that the United States takes is role as a member of the civilized world community seriously. But it should also be remembered that the United States is the victim in this conflict, having lost 3,000 private citizens to a sneak attack by Al-Qaida.

In the case of the Al-Qaida prisoners, it is safe to say that they are getting much better than they would be willing to give, were the tables turned. But that is not the standard that should be used.

They should be treated as we would expect U.S. citizens to be treated when under lawful detention.

To that end, a permanent prison should be built at Guantanamo, the United States should work to resolve the legal status of its prisoners and to pursue justice in an open forum consistent with the norms of Western civilization.




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