WASHINGTON—The way the United States has handled terrorism suspects since Sept. 11 and Iraqi POWs in the last few days will complicate efforts to protect American soldiers captured by Iraq, several international law and military experts said Monday.
The Pentagon stresses that captured Iraqis—about 3,000 in the first five days of the war—are treated well. Some have even received medical care on a hospital ship in the Persian Gulf.
But television and newspapers also are showing blindfolded and handcuffed Iraqi POWs, an apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners. Some are seen cowering at gunpoint.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there is little comparison between news shots of Iraqi prisoners, which he called "incidental pictures that some network may have taken" and the use by the Iraqi government of American POWs "for propaganda purposes."
Others, however, said that while the images are not as stark as a video circulated Sunday showing U.S. soldiers being interrogated by Iraqis, they dilute U.S. complaints about the way Iraqis are treating the Americans.
"Allowing Iraqi POWs to be photographed may serve the Pentagon's purpose in showing the Iraqi military collapsing, but it makes it much more difficult to protect the treatment of U.S. POWs," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Eugene Fidell, director of the nonpartisan National Institute of Military Justice, said he was concerned when he saw a blindfolded Iraqi POW on the front page of The Washington Post.
"That really complicates matters when you're trying to build a case about the treatment of your own POWs," he said. "It just makes it easier for others to take pot shots at us."
Roth and Fidell said the U.S. position is also hurt by its insistence on treating terrorist suspects and Taliban fighters from Afghanistan as "unlawful combatants" without the legal status of POWs and by the use of "stress and duress" interrogation techniques on captives in Afghanistan.
The Justice Department maintains that the suspects held at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba and in Afghanistan are being treated humanely. The International Committee of the Red Cross has had access to the 660 captives held in Guantanamo.
But Roth argued that reports that U.S. interrogators had kicked captives in Afghanistan and suspended them from ceilings hurts its calls for humane treatment of all prisoners.
"American POWs in Iraqi custody need all the help they can get to secure their Geneva Convention rights," Roth said. "It's unfortunate that the United States hasn't been a staunch defender of the Geneva Conventions in its own recent conduct."
Scott Silliman, the Air Force's top lawyer during the 1991 Gulf War who now heads the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University, recalled that the United States was criticized in that conflict for showing POWs herded into temporary detention camps. "You don't want to do anything that takes away the dignity of a POW," he said.
Article 13 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions on war states that POWs "must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity."
A spokesman for the Pentagon, Maj. Timothy Blair, said that the agreement with media outlets for journalists "embedded" in U.S. units specifies that "no photographs or other visual media showing an enemy prisoner of war or detainee's recognizable face, nametag or other identifying feature may be taken."
The news coverage presents "gray areas," said John Hutson, a former Navy rear admiral and judge advocate general.
"As far as Iraqis surrendering, the Pentagon has been anticipating it, talking about it—and now they are showing it," said Hutson, the dean of the Franklin Pierce Law School in New Hampshire. "Where is the line drawn? It's not easy."
Harold Koh, a former assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Clinton administration, called on the Bush administration to consider granting POW status to the prisoners at Guantanamo to strengthen the argument for humane treatment of U.S. fighters who fall into Iraqi hands.
But Hutson said he believed European nations would see POW issues in the Iraq war independently from the Guantanamo debate and "work hard to enforce the rules of the Geneva Conventions."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-POWs