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What's all this controversy about the al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay naval base?


The international media, many governments and some human rights organizations condemned the United States upon seeing photos of the al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. Rather than depicting them sipping cocktails at a Buena Vista Social Club show, the pictures showed the prisoners shorn of their religious beards, shackled and blindfolded in chain-link fenced cages -- conditions that violate the Geneva Convention's rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war. The US claims that the prisoners are not "prisoners of war" but rather "unlawful combatants." Because one of al-Qaeda's stated missions is to kill American civilians, the US argues that captured al-Qaeda fighters do not qualify as POWs under the convention. The government's official term for them is "detainees." The debate isn't merely over legal terminology. One of the main reasons we have the prisoners -- oops, I mean detainees -- at Guantanamo is to interrogate them. We want to find out about other terrorist plots and identify hidden al-Qaeda agents around the world. If we declare them POWs under the Geneva Convention's rules, we can't interrogate them.

Critics contrast our treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners with the treatment of American Taliban John Walker Lindh, who is in jail in Virginia awaiting trial in a civilian federal court. The Guantanamo prisoners may be tried and even executed in secret by a military court. But critics who cite Lindh's treatment are ignoring two important distinctions. First, Walker is a US citizen and is thus entitled to Constitutional protection. Second, Walker has been on the cover of a lot of important magazines and newspapers -- and if there's one law that Americans always follow, it's the one that guarantees good treatment of celebrities.

But even in government circles, there's debate over whether the prisoners should be granted Geneva Convention POW status. Some in the State Department (Colin Powell is among them) want to grant the al-Qaeda fighters POW protection so that captured American special forces might be granted the same. So far, that argument hasn't swayed our policy. Meanwhile, captured al-Qaeda fighters held in Afghanistan's overcrowded, disease-ridden Shibergan prison keep asking to be shipped to the vastly more comfortable Guantanamo jail. I'm starting to think that maybe some of these guys didn't really think this jihad stuff all the way through.

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