by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
than 3,000 Taliban prisoners of war risk death from malnutrition and disease in northern Afghanistan, a human rights group warned Jan. 28. The U.S. military, it added, has known about conditions in the prison, access to which it controlled until mid-month, but so far has done nothing to alleviate them.
Pentagon officials were unavailable for immediate comment. Jim Collins, the defence department's head of humanitarian affairs, was scheduled this afternoon to receive and discuss the report with a delegation from U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).
The visitors included two doctors who visited the Shebarghan Prison Jan. 20. One of them, PHR board member Jennifer Leaning, said before the meeting she had high hopes Washington would respond with immediate assistance.
The group reported that between 3,000 and 3,500 Afghan and Pakistani prisoners being held at Shebarghan, near the northern provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif, are living in grossly overcrowded cells under conditions that do not even approach minimal standards under the Geneva Conventions.
"We're dealing with a quiet atrocity," said Leaning. She quoted the prison warden, General Jarobak, as saying that "many, many, many prisoners have already died" at Shebarghan, mainly from dysentery and pneumonia.
disclosures came amid continuing international debate -- which reportedly has penetrated the ranks of the Bush administration -- about the status and treatment of 158 Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The administration had been put on the defensive last week when human rights organizations, including the International Red Cross and Amnesty International, and a number of European and Middle Eastern governments called on Washington to recognize the detainees as prisoners of war (POWs) entitled to all the protections provided under the Geneva Conventions.
The administration has strongly resisted, primarily because, if it does so, they could not be interrogated beyond being asked their name, rank, serial number, and date of birth, unless they are being investigated for war crimes or other criminal offenses, and would have to be repatriated to their home countries after the end of hostilities.
The administration has insisted that it is treating the men humanely but regards them as "terrorists," or "unlawful combatants" who are not eligible to receive procedural protections as POWs.
Last weekend, Secretary of State Colin Powell broke partially from that view when he reportedly asked Bush to review whether or not each prisoner was entitled to be heard by a military tribunal to determine his legal status, as required by the Geneva Conventions in cases in which there is any doubt.
The National Security Council Jan. 28 reportedly reviewed Powell's request but deferred a decision. After the meeting, Bush insisted that he will listen to "all the legalisms and announce my decision when I make it."
Bush insisted, as have Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who visited Guantanamo over the weekend, that "we are not going to call them prisoners of war" and added: "These are killers."
At the same time, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters the Conventions must be "interpreted in a modern light" and that the detainees were "lucky to be in the custody of our military because they're receiving three square meals a day."
Fleischer's reference to the food was particularly poignant in light of the prison conditions reported by PHR, the only independent organization, aside from the International Red Cross, to have entered Shebarghan since the U.S. military folded its tents there two weeks ago. The Red Cross keeps its reports confidential.
The prisoners, who were taken captive after their surrender at Kunduz, "are ordinary Taliban soldiers," according to Leaning. None of them was deemed important enough by U.S. military and intelligence officers, who screened them after their capture, to be sent to the U.S. holding facility at Kandahar and then on to Guantanamo.
"From our perspective, they are deemed worthy of the full force of protections provided by the Geneva Conventions," said Leaning.
She stressed there was no evidence that the prisoners at Shebarghan had suffered deliberate abuse, such as torture or execution, but that the prison's conditions were simply grossly inadequate.
About 1,000 prisoners are held in each of three blocks of cells. Individual cells, built to house 10-15 men, are holding up to 110, Gen. Jarobak told the delegation, which interviewed prisoners at the gates of each cell block and in the prison's primitive infirmary, but which was not permitted inside the blocks themselves.
"The facilities are entirely inadequate for the care of the number of people now held there, the food is insufficient in quantity and nutrition, the water supply unclean, sanitation virtually absent, clothing meager, and barred walls open to the elements expose the inhabitants to winter conditions," according to the 11-page report.
"Capacity to provide medical care is hampered by insufficient supplies and primitive facilities," it went on. "Dysentery and yellow jaundice, probably due to Hepatitis A, are epidemic."
Leaning stressed Gen. Jarobak, who is responsible to warlord and Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Abdul-Rashid Dostum, wanted PHR to inform the world community about conditions at the prison in hopes that support would be forthcoming.
"The people who have custody of these people have no capacity to meet their needs," said Leonard Rubinstein, PHR's executive director.
Under the Geneva Conventions, POWs must be granted adequate food, shelter, water, and medical care.
"There are thousands of people in Shebarghan, and they are dying," Rubinstein said. "More will die if the United States doesn't take action to stop it."
The report stressed that the prison's conditions are part of the widespread and very dangerous insecurity in Afghanistan witnessed by the delegation. It noted that reprisal attacks by ethnically based militias against Pashtun civilians are taking place and that an extremely fragile peace between different militias in Mazar is holding only because of the continued presence there of U.S. forces.
The chairman of Afghanistan's interim administration, Hamid Karzai, met Bush at the White House today, in part to plead for the expansion of an international peacekeeping force to ensure security in other key cities and on highways outside Kabul, to which the existing British-led force is now confined.
Bush pledged to help train and equip a unified Afghan army but ruled out U.S. participation in the peacekeeping mission.
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