GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- Red Cross workers began questioning al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners Friday about their treatment at the hands of the U.S. military, while rights groups insisted they should be classified as POWs for their own protection.
Four members of the International Committee of the Red Cross -- including a physician, an expert on prison conditions and a linguist who speaks several languages, including Arabic -- arrived Thursday for what was expected to be a weeklong visit at this U.S. military outpost.
Interviews are voluntary and include questions about the prisoners' health, detention conditions and treatment. It was unclear how many detainees had been questioned conducted Friday.
Before going to the camp, the team met with Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert and others directing the detention operation.
"We support and welcome their opinions on the conditions," said Army Lt. Col. Bill Costello, spokesman for a task force overseeing the operation. "We're expecting the Red Cross to maintain a permanent presence here."
The visit comes as rights advocates, who have complained the prisoners are kept in inhumane conditions -- such as cells that are too small -- pressed for Washington to classify the captives as prisoners of war, which would invoke specific protections under the Geneva Conventions.
"The United States must adhere to the Geneva Convention," said Michael Ratner, an attorney who is vice president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. "Imagine if those were U.S. soldiers being held in cages in Guantanamo. We would insist that they receive the benefit of international legal protections."
Amnesty International said housing detainees in the open-air chain link cells "falls below minimum standards for humane treatment," and that the temporary cells -- 8-by-8 feet -- are too small.
"The question of legal status is not just an academic question, it is a question of life and death," said Avner Gidrone, senior policy adviser for London-based Amnesty. "If the intention is for the United States to try these prisoners through a military commission, it would almost certainly carry the death penalty, would not meet international standards and would violate standards of due process."
Nathalie de Watteville, deputy head of the ICRC in Washington D.C., said the team's findings would be shared with U.S. officials, but would likely remain confidential.
Tried on U.S. terms
The United States, which maintains the prisoners are treated fairly and humanely, reserves the right to try them on its own terms and is not calling them prisoners of war.
Under the Geneva Convention, POWs must be tried by the same courts and under the same procedures as U.S. soldiers. Under that status, prisoners would be tried for war crimes through courts-martial or civilian courts but not by military tribunals.
Under POW status, prisoners must also be housed in similar conditions to their guards.
The U.S. military maintains strict security because some prisoners say they are ready to kill their captors.
U.S. officials also say no interrogations have begun yet, but it is unclear whether prisoners will be offered legal advice should that occur.
The camp at this remote U.S. outpost -- the oldest on foreign soil -- now holds 110 al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners and officials say they expect new arrivals every two to three days.
Prisoners, dressed in orange jumpsuits and with shaven heads, spend their days eating, praying and sometimes walking with an armed guard inside the camp, surrounded by three layers of fences topped by razor wire within the heavily fortified base.
Military officials say the temporary camp will soon be able to hold 320 inmates, or more if they are housed two to a cell. Workers also are building a permanent prison to hold up to 2,000.
The United States is holding more than 300 prisoners in Afghanistan, at the Marine base at Kandahar airport, and a few others elsewhere.
U.S. troops seized Guantanamo Bay in 1898 and have remained ever since despite opposition from the Cuban government. Cuba, however, has not opposed holding the prisoners on its soil.