18 January 2003
The International Committee of the Red Cross is appealing to U.S. authorities to reconsider the legal status of hundreds of suspected al-Qaida and Taleban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. The ICRC is the only independent group allowed to visit the prisoners.
It has been one year since the first prisoners began arriving at Guantanamo Bay. Now, more than 620 detainees representing 41 nationalities are being held there. None has been charged with a crime, or tried.
Antonella Notari, a spokeswoman for the ICRC, says the prisoners are in legal limbo, and U.S. authorities should clarify their status. "The people do not know if they are accused of anything," she said. "They do not know if they will be tried. They do not have access to legal counsel. They simply are being held, without any further information on the reasons why they are being held and what will happen to them in legal terms."
The Red Cross says the United States should treat the detainees as prisoners of war under terms of the Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of prisoners of war. Other human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, have criticized Washington's refusal to do so, and have said that the prisoners should be either charged or released.
U.S. officials describe them as unlawful combatants, and say that, as such, they are not entitled to POW status.
The ICRC has had four rounds of visits with the detainees over the past year to check on their treatment and conditions of confinement. During this period, Ms. Notari says, the Red Cross has hand-carried more than 3,300 short letters between the detainees and their families. "The way we proceed is that the prisoners write the message," explained Ms. Notar. "It is a Red Cross form. It is an open letter. He writes a short family message, and it must not contain any political or other type of information. It must be strictly family news. The messages are censored by the detaining authorities - in this case, the U.S. authorities - and then we forward them to our Red Cross representative network worldwide. We deliver the messages from Guantanamo in about 20 countries throughout the world."
Ms. Notari says these messages represent a lifeline of contact. She says they are extremely important and reassuring for both the prisoners and their families, who otherwise would have no news about each other.