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April 15, 2002, Monday


A NATION CHALLENGED: PRISONERS; U.S. Treatment of War Captives Is Criticized

WASHINGTON, April 14 -- In a harsh evaluation of American policy, Amnesty International says the United States has violated several international laws in its treatment of those captured during the war in Afghanistan and has failed to live up to its statements that it is complying with the Geneva Convention.

''Despite repeated statements that it is committed to international law and standards, the U.S. government is failing to meet its obligation to apply such law and standards to those it has in its custody in Afghanistan and Guant�namo Bay,'' the human rights organization says in a report to be released on Monday. ''In so doing, it has not only violated the rights of those individuals but threatens to undermine the rule of law everywhere.''

These rights, the report says, include the right to be informed of the reason for detention, the right to prompt and confidential access to counsel of one's choice and the presumption of innocence.

The report says the presumption of innocence has been undermined by ''a pattern of public commentary on the presumed guilt of the people'' in American custody in Guant�namo Bay.

The United States is holding 299 prisoners from more than 30 countries at the United States Naval Air Station at Guant�namo Bay, Cuba, and about 240 prisoners in Afghanistan. The government says it is treating the prisoners humanely, even though it has denied them prisoner of war status, which would entitle them to certain privileges.

Moreover, as the government has asserted in court papers, it is holding the prisoners ''under the president's authority as commander in chief and under the laws and usages of war,'' and the detainees, as aliens with no connection to the United States, are being held outside sovereign United States territory.

The Amnesty International report says the government was concerned about the authority under which it was holding the prisoners and demonstrated this when it discovered that one of them was an American and quickly transferred him out of Guant�namo Bay.

The report said this quick transfer reflected ''official concern'' that the American, who would have access to federal courts, ''could have become a test case for challenging the detention of all prisoners there.''

The government has not yet scheduled any tribunals and has not charged any of the prisoners at Guant�namo Bay with specific crimes. Nor have any of the prisoners had access to lawyers. The military says that it is still interrogating the prisoners and that its priority is to extract information that could prevent attacks.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that because the prisoners are terrorists, and may be connected with the Sept. 11 attacks, they may not be released even if acquitted in military tribunals.

The Amnesty report says the military is keeping details of the capture and detention of the prisoners too secret for the public to be able to evaluate what it is doing. It cites news reports that the United States had transferred dozens of prisoners from Afghanistan to Egypt, where, it says, they could be subject to torture during interrogation.

Mr. Rumsfeld said such reports were irresponsible and wrong, but Amnesty says it is concerned that he has not issued a categorical denial that prisoners under American control could still be interrogated in other countries.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company