Straw presses U.S. on detainees
LONDON, England -- UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has told British representatives at Guantanamo Bay to ask U.S. officials for an explanation of photographs showing al-Qaida and Taliban suspects in manacles.
The photos from the U.S. naval base in Cuba show the men kneeling on the ground in handcuffs with masks over their mouths and noses and mittens on their hands.
They were taken when the prisoners arrived on January 11 and released over the weekend by the U.S. Navy.
The Pentagon says this is a holding area where the detainees were processed on the day they arrived.
The pictures were displayed prominently in many British newspapers and on television on Sunday -- The Mail tabloid ran the headline "Tortured" over one of the photos -- and contributed to a new row in Britain about American treatment of the prisoners.
The Mail also ran a caption in bold saying: "They can hear nothing, see nothing, smell nothing, feel nothing.
"Manacled hand and foot, they knee in submission. Is this how Bush and Blair feel about our civilisation?"
Straw said in a statement: "I have asked our officials in Guantanamo Bay to establish with the U.S. the circumstances in which these photographs were taken.
"The British government's position is that prisoners -- regardless of their technical status -- should be treated humanely and in accordance with customary international law," Straw said. "We have always made that clear and the Americans have said they share this view."
Straw said he was awaiting a report from a team of British officials visiting Guantanamo, where three Britons are believed to be among the 100 prisoners.
The U.S. government calls the prisoners "unlawful combatants" or "detainees" rather than prisoners of war assigned legal rights under the Geneva Conventions, but insists they are being treated humanely.
Human rights groups and some British politicians have criticised the treatment of the prisoners. Prime Minister Tony Blair has sought to balance defending U.S. authorities with insisting the prisoners' human rights must be guaranteed.
He has called the prisoners "very dangerous people," but insisted they must be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
Later, Blair's official spokesman was asked whether Straw's reference to customary international law meant the Government accepted that the detainees were prisoners of war, and should enjoy the protections afforded by the Geneva Convention.
The spokesman told the Press Association: "What we have said all along is that we believe that they should be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
"That has been our position all along, and that actually has been what the American authorities have said as well."
Another British Sunday tabloid gave the pictures a different treatment from the Mail.
Under a strapline the News of the World said: "Those who claim al Qaeda prisoners are treated badly should look at these pictures."
Alongside a photo from Camp X-Ray it also featured a photograph of a grinning Taliban supporter carrying two severed hands with a headline:
"We chop off hair... they chop off hands." Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for Britain's Liberal Democrat party, said the photographs would damage the credibility of the international anti-terrorism coalition.
"I don't believe that we will successfully fight a campaign against terror if we publicly treat people in the way in which these photographs suggest," he told Sky News. "You only have to ask yourself the question 'What sort of effect will these pictures have in capitals like, for example, Cairo, or Amman in Jordan?"'
"We do not set the standards by which we treat prisoners by the standards which al-Qaida or the Taliban might have used," he continued. "It is precisely because our standards are different and better and superior that we were engaged in the military action in Afghanistan."
Tony Lloyd, Labour MP for Manchester Central and a former Foreign Office minister, said: "The treatment does seem to be way below the standards we would expect."
He told BBC TV's "Breakfast with Frost" programme: "In the end, the Geneva Convention was there to provide a floor below which civilised nations shouldn't fall.
"And frankly, Britain is a civilised nation; we must insist ourselves that we abide by the Geneva Convention, and we have got to insist that our allies, and we were America's closest ally, stick by that minimum standard."
But on the same programme, UK Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith cautioned against a "rush to judgment."
"We have got Government officials going in to look at them at the moment and also the Red Cross, so I am prepared to wait to find out exactly what those reports are.
"Many of these men are among the most dangerous people you will ever find anywhere in the world... before we all get overly exercised about this, let's just pause for a second and say `let's get the balance right, let's find out what the circumstances are'.
"These people are immensely dangerous people and we must make certain that they are held securely and not able to cause any death or mayhem again."
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