January 28, 2002
1547 IST

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Should Al Qaeda detainees be given POWs status?

TV Parasuram and Dharam Shourie in Washington

Differences at the top level in the American administration have come to the fore once again with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejecting Secretary of State Colin Powell's view that captured Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners being held in Afghanistan and at a Cuban base be treated as Prisoners of War under the Geneva Convention.

Appearing on CNN on Sunday night, Cheney said the Al Qaeda captives detained in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba will not get the status of POWs irrespective of the decision that the administration may take on the request of Powell to review how Geneva Convention could apply to them.

He suggested that the state department's view that the captives should be treated within the confines of the Geneva Convention would be rejected.

Even at the height of the US operations in Afghanistan, Powell and Rumsfeld had different view on continuing the war during Ramzan.

Rumsfeld, who visited the Cuban camp on Sunday, said these prisoners were not combatants of an army in uniform. They were unlawful combatants and terrorists and hence they were detainees.

Cheney said, "There is a category under the Geneva Convention for unlawful combatants, and one argument, the state department argument, is they ought to be treated within the Geneva Convention."

The other argument, he said, is the Geneva Convention doesn't apply in the case of terrorism, and that leads you down a different track from a legal standpoint.

"The ultimate result is they will be treated humanely, but the are not going to be accorded the treatment you would accord, for example, the Iraqis that we captured in the Gulf War, who were treated -- a prisoner of war, for example, has to give only name, rank and serial number," Cheney said.

The New York Times said Powell agrees that the captives should not be given prisoner of war status, but wants the administration to reconsider whether to adhere to the Geneva Convention governing treatment of prisoners in wartime.

But in the television interview, Cheney rejected application of Geneva Convention to them, saying it did not apply as they were not conventional soldiers, but terrorists operating outside internationally accepted norms.

The question, he said, was whether the prisoners should be treated within the confines of the convention or outside it. He prefers the latter course because it would allow flexibility in interrogation.

"There's another school of thought that says the Geneva Convention does not apply to terrorist attacks. It was set up to deal with a war between sovereign states. It's got provisions for dealing with civil war. But in a case where you have non-state actors out to kill civilians, then there's a serious question whether or not the Geneva Convention even applies," Cheney said.

"The detainees are being treated humanely. These are the worst of a very bad lot. They are very dangerous. They are devoted to killing millions of Americans, innocent Americans, if they can, and they are perfectly prepared to die in the effort."

Rumsfeld, who visited the Guantanamo, later told reporters that there is no ambiguity. They are POWs and 'they will not be determined to be POWs'.

As many as 158 prisoners are being held in Guantanamo. The issue of application of the Geneva Convention has arisen following sharp criticism by human rights groups about the treatment of the captives.

Rumsfeld said the captured prisoners were treated well.

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