Guantanamo prisoners not POWs

It’s obviously wrong to keep human beings in cages. But some of the comments by politicians and the media on the treatment of the al-Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo seem unrelated to available evidence or to any serious consideration of relevant international law. The picture of crouching, hooded, handcuffed, mittened prisoners which has caused such indignation was explicitly taken on their first arrival, and tells us nothing about their conditions once processed and caged. Professor Adam Roberts, in a definitive article in yesterday’s Independent on Sunday, has shown that al-Qaeda prisoners almost certainly don’t qualify for Prisoner of War status under the Geneva Conventions (although questions of doubt over status ought to be resolved by a "competent [not necessarily international] tribunal"); to qualify, their operations need among other things to have been conducted in accord with the laws of war, which obviously they weren’t – so that their categorisation by the Americans as "illegal combatants" does make a certain amount of sense. None of this can justify treating them inhumanely, whatever their status; but are we sure that they are being treated more inhumanely than many US citizens in penitentiaries all over the United States – or, for that matter, than the suspected terrorists, not convicted or even charged with any offence, imprisoned indefinitely at Belmarsh prison in London? All the same, the cages can’t be justified on any reckoning.

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