Two days after US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld brushed off international criticism over the detention conditions of Taleban and Al Qaeda fighters at the US naval base of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an international anti-torture group declared that their ill-treatment may amount to torture. «Based on the information we have seen in the international press and non-governmental organizations, we have determined that the conditions of detention of those prisoners amounts to torture,» Dr Maria Piniou-Kalli, president of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), declared yesterday. The president of the IRCT, a Copenhagen-based umbrella anti-torture organization with over 200 centers worldwide, expressed in an interview with Kathimerini’s English Edition her grave concern at the USA’s respect for the rights of the detainees at Camp X-Ray, the prison camp on the US naval base. She noted that there was disturbing silence surrounding the actual conditions in which the Taleban and Al Qaeda suspects are being detained, and that the failure of the USA to determine their status, or to proceed with any charges, places them in a legal vacuum in which their international human rights protection cannot be guarantied. «There were ear muffs, dark goggles, masks, gloves, orange jumpsuits, and restraints on movement,» Dr Piniou-Kalli said. «The ear muffs diminish a person’s hearing ability, the gloves his sense of touch, the masks covering nose and mouth diminish his sense of smell and ability for speech, and the monochrome orange color of their jumpsuits impairs their vision. All together, they amount to sensory deprivation and this is a form of torture.» Moreover, she said, the use of restraints on hands and feet and the position of the men, kneeling on the ground, constitutes restriction of movement, which is also a form of torture. Secretary Rumsfeld, during an hourlong news conference on Tuesday on the issue, declared that reports by rights groups and concerns voiced by foreign governments about the treatment of the detainees were «just plain false,» and that «no detainee has been mistreated in any way.» Rumsfeld explained that the ear muffs were used during the transfer of the prisoners as protection against the plane’s engine noise, and that the masks had been deemed necessary as some of the Taleban and Al Qaeda members had tested positive for tuberculosis. He also explained that a small number of them had to be sedated during the transfer as a security precaution, as they were deemed «extremely dangerous.» Questionable methods On the use of sedatives as a means of restraining some of the captured fighters, Dr Piniou-Kalli noted that «sedation with the administration of medication for no medical reason is also a violation, and a very serious violation. Its use, by the Russians in psychiatric clinics of the former Soviet Union, on those opposing the regime was later ruled a form of torture.» The IRCT official went on to underline that the fact that all detainees had had their beards forcefully shaved was tantamount to degrading treatment and violated their civil rights. «The forceful shaving of the beard of a man for whom it has a religious, political, social and traditional meaning, as well as a deeper connection with his manhood, is an insult to his dignity and a violation of his civil rights,» she said. According to the IRCT official and reports by other rights groups, the methods used in the transfer and detention of the captured fighters are effectively tactics to humiliate and frighten before interrogation. Guantanamo base officials announced yesterday that the «questioning» of the detainees had started. The IRCT has also expressed grave concern over the conditions of incarceration of the 150 detainees, which it declares do not meet even the minimum standards stipulated in UN conventions. «Those standards are described in great detail in the conventions, down to how many square meters the cell should be, where the toilet should be located, and all kinds of other requirements,» she noted. Photos released by the Pentagon have shown the detainees imprisoned in heavily guarded, roofed but unwalled cells, described as «wire cages» by the IRCT, and in high temperatures that reach 30C. Legal status of prisoners On the issue of the physical and legal status of the prisoners, the IRCT calls upon the US government to declare the prisoners prisoners of war (POWs) and to abide by international commitments accordingly. «To deny these rights under the Geneva Conventions arguably equals a war crime,» the IRCT stressed in a statement. Rumsfeld on Tuesday rejected similar calls to declare the detainees as POWs, while declaring that all international conventions on prisoner treatment had been adhered to. But the IRCT says that according to Article 4 of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, «it can be argued that the conflict in Afghanistan was a state of war.» «Alternatively, Article 5 requires the USA to apply the Convention until their status is determined by a competent tribunal, and Article 13 stipulates that the prisoners must ‘at all times be humanely treated,’ and ‘at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.’ » But according to Dr Piniou-Kalli, even if the United States does not recognize the detainees as POWs, they are still entitled to certain rights under international conventions, and those right have been violated. «Whether they are considered POWs or ‘unlawful combatants,’ as the Americans term them, their conditions of detention violate that very same Convention,» she declared.