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U.S., critics debate whether detainees are POWs

(CNN) -- The United States calls them "unlawful combatants." Critics say the detainees holed up at Guantanamo Bay's Camp X-Ray in Cuba are actually prisoners of war.

What may seem like mere semantics, however, could profoundly affect how the detainees are treated, what their rights are and what may become of them.

The United States insists the detainees from Afghanistan are being treated humanely and -- in most instances -- as if they were prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

But the U.S. government refuses to classify the detainees officially as POWs. Officials suggest the Taliban and al Qaeda members don't deserve that designation.

"By not wearing uniforms, by not carrying your weapon openly, by not carrying insignia of that, you're trying to suggest that you want the advantages that accrue to an innocent, a civilian, a noncombatant," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday.

Detainees treated humanely, officials say 
Gallery: Images from Camp X-Ray
In their own words: American troops at Guantanamo Bay defend the treatment of detainees 
Geneva Convention: Treatment of POWs 

Rumsfeld said the detainees either will be charged or released at some point, noting that the primary reason for their detention is to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Although it hasn't identified them, the United States has indicated that the prisoners include members of the Taliban, the former Afghan regime, and the al Qaeda terrorist network.

"These people are committed terrorists," Rumsfeld said. "We are keeping them off the street and out of the airlines and out of nuclear power plants and out of ports ... , and it seems to me a perfectly reasonable thing to do."

When is a captive a POW?

The 1949 Geneva Convention attempted to spell out international guidelines for what constitutes a prisoner of war and the rights to which he or she should be entitled.

They should receive humane treatment, are bound only to offer basic identifying information about themselves and must be released and sent home when hostilities end, the convention says.

Amnesty International said any detainee suspected of a crime also must be charged with a criminal offense, then tried fairly or released.

In addition to members of armed forces in a conflict, members of other militias or organized resistance movements also may qualify as prisoners of war as long as they meet several specific conditions detailed by the Geneva Convention.

They include being part of a chain of command, having a "fixed distinctive sign" that is recognizable from a distance, carrying their weapons openly and observing the laws of war.

'Rules are very clear'

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said all the detainees should be considered "presumptive POWs."

"The rules are very clear here. If they are members of the Afghan military, people like the Taliban military, they will be found to be prisoners of war," he said. "If they are a separate militia, like al Qaeda, probably they will be found not to be prisoners of war."

Critics also note that it's not up to the United States to determine whether the detainees are entitled to prisoner-of-war status, according to the Geneva Convention.

The convention said the status, if disputed, has to be determined by a "competent tribunal."

Meanwhile, delegates with the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived at the camp last week to assess the conditions. They plan to file an official report soon for the U.S. government.


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