GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Three British Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees captured in Afghanistan and taken to the American prison base here are receiving fair treatment, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday.
His comments, relayed through a spokesman, that the Britons had "no complaints about their treatment" came on the heels of controversy over whether or not the U.S. military was mistreating those it imprisoned during the war in Afghanistan.
After publication and broadcast of Defense Department photographs of the captives, a group of British legislators and human rights groups pressed for the detainees to be given prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Convention. Such status would mean they would be tried under the same procedures as U.S. soldiers — through court-martial or civilian courts, not military tribunals.
Newspapers in Britain played up pictures of some of the 144 Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo shackled and kneeling. After one Sunday tabloid accused the United States of torturing prisoners, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he told British representatives at Guantanamo Bay to ask American officials for an explanation.
Blair's spokesman said the accusations were unfounded, as far as the Britons were concerned.
"They are in good physical health and there was no sign of any mistreatment. They have also had contact with the Red Cross," said Blair's spokesman, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. "The three asked for a number of messages to be passed to their families and we are in the process of doing that.
"There were no gags, no goggles, no ear muffs, no shackles while the detainees are in their cells. They only wear shackles — and only shackles — when they are outside their cells."
On Monday afternoon, 14 more detainees arrived — all of them on stretchers — bringing the total of prisoners at Guantanamo to 158. They were given medical treatement on board, and all arrived in stable condition. Military officials said they were making the injured and sick a priority because of increasingly cold weather in Afghanistan.
In Los Angeles, a federal judge agreed to hear a petition from U.S. civil rights advocates, including former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, challenging the detentions of the detainees in Guantanamo.
And the Netherlands joined the debate on Monday, demanding the U.S. recognize the detainees as prisoners of war with rights under the Geneva Conventions.
U.S. treatment of the detainees has posed a serious foreign policy challenge for Blair since he put Britain solidly behind Washington in the war against terrorism.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said accusations of mistreatment came from people who were not knowledgeable about the detention conditions, and he had "no doubt" the detainees were being treated humanely.
U.S. officials have said stringent security is needed because many of the prisoners are dangerous and some have threatened to kill their U.S. captors. On Wednesday, one inmate bit the forearm of a military police officer who tried to subdue him.
But on Monday, more British newspapers assailed the treatment.
In its early edition, The Mirror ran a front-page editorial calling it "barbaric" and "Barbarism that is backed by our government."
The paper also said President Bush "is close to achieving the impossible — losing the sympathy of the civilized world" for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
"Britain and U.S. in rift over terrorist prisoners," said The Daily Telegraph which, like all the serious broadsheet newspapers, made the issue front-page news Monday.
A day earlier, The Mail on Sunday tabloid ran a cover photo under the headline "Tortured," and wrote, "First pictures show use of sensory deprivation to soften suspects for interrogation."
The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights also had criticized the men's detention without charges or evidence.
On Sunday, armed Marines met 34 new prisoners and led them one-by-one from the Air Force C-141 cargo plane to a waiting school bus. The inmates' ankles were shackled and they wore orange jumpsuits, denim jackets, knit caps, turquoise surgical masks and goggles blacked out for security reasons.
Two of new arrivals were sedated during the flight because "they were yelling and thrashing about," spokesman Marine Maj. Stephen Cox said.
"I don't think that I would characterize that as torture, I would characterize that as an appropriate security measure," he said.
He said one detainee with an old battle injury to the leg was carried off the airplane. Officials say nearly a third of the detainees have battle wounds, mainly gunshots in the arm or leg.
The new arrivals were driven to the camp, where officials said they would be processed and given a basic physical exam. Then they are taken to temporary cells with chain-link fence walls on a concrete slab topped by a corrugated iron roof.
Military officials say the cells soon could hold 320 inmates, or more if they were housed two to a cell. Soldiers are awaiting permission to build a permanent facility that would hold up to 1,000 inmates.
Cox said the new arrivals did not include six Algerians transferred to U.S. military custody in Bosnia. U.S. defense officials in Afghanistan had said the six, suspected of terrorism, had been aboard the plane that left the military base at Kandahar airport for the 8,000-mile flight to Guantanamo Bay.
The men were originally arrested by Bosnian authorities on suspicion of terrorist ties, but have not been linked to Al Qaeda.
Rumsfeld said Sunday the detainees likely would be tried by military commissions on Guantanamo. Such a move, on a base that is not on U.S. soil, would deny detainees the right of appeal in a U.S. court.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.