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Pentagon defends treatment of detainees

Guantanamo Bay
U.S. Marines stand guard at Guantanamo Bay.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As a total of 50 Taliban and al Qaeda detainees settled into a hurriedly constructed prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Pentagon on Monday defended their treatment in the face of complaints by human rights advocates.

Human rights groups complained that the detainees have not been given "prisoner-of-war" status and are being treated poorly -- forced to shave in violation of their religious tenets and to live in cages open to the elements.

"If U.S. soldiers, for example, were held in open-mesh cages covered with a tin roof, I think the U.S. government would complain about it," said James Ross, senior legal adviser to Human Rights Watch.

But the Pentagon insists the detainees -- it refuses to call them prisoners of war -- are not being abused.

"Each day, the detainees are given three culturally appropriate meals. They have daily opportunities to shower, exercise and receive medical attention," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.

"So, in keeping with accordance of the Geneva Convention, they are receiving very humane treatment," she said, adding that representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross are slated to visit them this week.

The Pentagon is denying accusations that detainment facilities and treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners are inhumane. CNN's Jamie Mcintyre reports (January 15)

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The ICRC will assess the conditions and decide whether shaving the detainees' heads and beards was warranted to combat head lice, as the Pentagon said.

Ross objects to the plan to shave the detainees.

"Shaving prisoners, whose beards may be for important religious purposes, raises a concern because that would be an affront to their dignity," Ross said.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last week defended the practice of hooding the detainees, chaining them and, in at least one case, sedating a prisoner during the 8,000-mile flight from Afghanistan.

"All one has to do is look at television any day of the week, and you can see that when prisoners are being moved between locations, they're frequently restrained in some way," he said.

They will not be handled as prisoners of war because they are "unlawful combatants" and therefore have no rights under the Geneva Conventions, Rumsfeld said.

Still, "we do plan to, for the most part, treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva Conventions, to the extent they are appropriate," he said.

But Ross, referring to whether the detainees are POWs, said that "it's not up to the defense secretary to make that determination."

"Under the Geneva Conventions and U.S. military regulations, there is supposed to be an independent tribunal that would make this determination, so it is not really his decision to decide that," Ross said Monday.

Although shackling prisoners during transit may be a reasonable precaution to take, he said, "Once they are in Gitmo Bay, there is no reason whatsoever that they should be shackled."

He added that he was more concerned about reports that the prisoners are being held on cement floors behind chain-link fences where they are exposed to the elements.

The Guantanamo Bay base, 45 square miles of barren land on the edge of cliffs high above the Caribbean Sea, is a remote facility where more than 3,000 U.S. military service members, civilians and their families live.

It has been leased from Cuba since 1903 and has remained a U.S. enclave on the communist island since the Cuban revolution in 1959.

Cuban government spokesman Luis Fernandez said Monday that Havana was willing to cooperate in providing sanitation and medical services while the detainees are being held at Guantanamo Bay.

He said Cuba had no plans to beef up its military presence near the Guantanamo Bay base in response to the increase in U.S. personnel needed to watch the detainees.


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