Ashcroft defends detainees' treatment
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (CNN) -- Another 14 detainees arrived here Monday, bringing the total to 158 who have been transferred to this makeshift prison from Afghanistan.
The 14 new detainees were taken off the plane on stretchers. One U.S. official said the military is now focusing on bringing wounded detainees from Afghanistan to the base, where they can receive better medical attention.
U.S. officials have been careful to refer to the men as "war criminals."
That has rankled some critics. "Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld and others insist that these are not prisoners of war and there, frankly, he's wrong," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The Geneva Conventions require all prisoners to be treated as presumptive prisoners of war until a competent tribunal determines otherwise."
The 1949 Geneva Conventions, ratified but not signed by the United States, require that prisoners of war receive humane treatment, adequate food and delivery of relief supplies, and forbid anyone to pressure prisoners to supply more than a minimum of information.
But Attorney General John Ashcroft defended his classification of the detainees as "war criminals."
"These people are terrorists, they haven't fought like soldiers, they don't wear uniforms, they don't reveal themselves," Ashcroft said Sunday. "This is a part of the conspiracy where innocent women and children, innocent Americans, were destroyed not as an act of conventional war, but in the context of what I consider to be war criminality."
He defended the conditions at the U.S. naval base, saying they were necessary to protect troops stationed there.
"These individuals are being restrained and properly so. They are terrorists. They are uniquely dangerous," Ashcroft told CNN's Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer.
The detainees are being housed in outdoor cells surrounded by chain-link fences until other facilities are constructed. They receive three meals a day -- including one meal that meets Muslim religious requirements -- and have all other basic needs met, U.S. military officials said.
"Their basic needs are regarded, they have the right food, they have the right shelter, the right capacity to avoid injury," Ashcroft said.
Asked about a photograph in Sunday editions of the New York Times showing detainees -- crouched, wearing goggles, some with ear covers and chains on their arms -- a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command said the pictures were taken upon their arrival at the base and that they are not similarly shackled while inside their cells.
Col. Ron Williams, director of public affairs for U.S. Southern Command, said the detainees are blindfolded, shackled and forced to wear surgical masks only when they are moved.
Williams said the measures are taken to ensure prisoners cannot hatch a plot, or pick up information about U.S. forces simply by watching.
He added that the detainees are shackled, but not blindfolded, during exercise.
U.S. soldiers have placed signs near their cells pointing eastward so the Muslim prisoners can pray in the direction of Mecca.
Williams added that a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross has delivered mail to the some of the detainees.
ICRC officials have been allowed access to the camps and are discussing conditions at the base, said U.S. Marines spokesman Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert. The Red Cross has not issued a report yet, Rumsfeld said.
A total of 269 prisoners remain in Afghanistan. Another one -- American Taliban fighter John Walker -- remains aboard the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea.
Walker is expected to be transported in the next few days to the United States, where the Department of Justice will take custody of the 20-year-old, who has admitted to fighting alongside the Taliban.
"Ashcroft and I and the president have agreed [Walker] will be transferred from military detention over to the Department of Justice for deposition in the criminal court system of the United States, very likely in the northern district of Virginia," Rumsfeld said Sunday. "He'll arrive in that jurisdiction sometime in the days ahead."
CNN Correspondent Bob Franken and Producer Silvio Carrillo and Correspondent Jeff Levine at the Pentagon contributed to this story.
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