The Pentagon on Wednesday halted the shipment of Al-Qaida and Taliban detainees from Afghanistan to the U.S. naval base in Cuba until more facilities can be built there to hold them.
Capt. Thomas Crosson, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, characterized the action as "a brief pause" and said he expected the flights to the base at Guantanamo Bay to resume soon.
Some European government officials and human-rights groups have complained that the 158 detainees now at Guantanamo are being treated harshly and are being denied rights that should be guaranteed them under the Geneva Convention as prisoners of war.
Germany's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that it called in the U.S. ambassador to discuss the treatment of the detainees.
Meanwhile, John Walker, the 20-year-old American Taliban fighter, is set to go before the U.S. District Court in Northern Virginia today as the first step in his prosecution on charges of conspiring with Osama bin Laden's terrorists to kill Americans.
Walker was flown from Afghanistan in a military jet Wednesday under tight security and secrecy. He landed at Dulles International Airport and was taken to a detention center in Alexandria, Va., though a Justice Department spokesman said no information about Walker's whereabouts would be released for security reasons.
At Guantanamo Bay, officials said questioning of the detainees has begun.
"It's an interview process, an information-gathering process, not a forceful process," Navy Capt. Robert Buehn, commander of the base, told reporters.
Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who heads the task force holding the prisoners, said that once questioned, prisoners were separated from the other detainees being kept at Camp X-Ray. Lehnert said prisoners did not have lawyers present during the questioning. "Our view is legal counsel is not appropriate at this point," he said.
The camp holds suspected terrorists from 10 countries, including Britain, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Australia.
Camp conditions criticized
Officials from other governments began to complain about the prisoners' treatment after newspapers published photographs of the detainees wearing blacked-out goggles, earmuffs and surgical masks.
In London, lawmakers and a delegation of British Muslims met with U.S. Embassy officials about treatment and conditions.
In a White House meeting Wednesday with congressional leaders, President Bush defended the arrangements at Guantanamo as necessary for the protection of U.S. military personnel there.
"You should be proud," Bush said. "We're continuing to protect our people."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who attended the meeting, also defended the arrangements.
"These aren't military people," he said of the detainees. "They don't belong to a country. They don't wear a uniform. They're not part of an army. It's a unique situation and we'll have to deal with it in a unique way."
Lawmakers plan inspection
But some legislators plan a one-day visit Friday to see for themselves, according to aides of Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, both Republicans who are part of the delegation.
At a White House news briefing, press secretary Ari Fleischer called the treatment humane and necessary.
"The president is perfectly satisfied that the traditions of the United States, which are to treat people well, to treat people with dignity and to treat people humanely, are being kept at our base in Guantanamo," Fleischer said. "The president also understands that the people who are detained there are detained because for the most part they're Al-Qaida, and if they were free they would engage in murder once again."
As justification for the precautions being taken, Fleischer cited last year's uprising at a fortress prison in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, where a CIA interrogator, Johnny "Mike" Spann, was killed.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Guantanamo camp could accommodate twice the number of detainees currently there if officials were willing to put two in each cell.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "has been very clear from the beginning that he's not going to send people to Guantanamo that Guantanamo is not ready to accept," Whitman said. "There is no schedule. We will continue to bring them there as capacity and our capability permit us to handle them appropriately."
More cells being built
Crosson, the Southern Command spokesman, said new prisoner cages were expected to be added today.
Whitman made clear that U.S. military officials "don't want more than one person" per cell.
"There are clearly more that will go to Guantanamo," he said, but the number is up in the air as detainees are screened in Afghanistan.
The military is awaiting approval to build a more permanent prison that would meet U.S. prison requirements.
Walker, the only U.S. citizen captured in the Afghanistan fighting, was not sent to the Guantanamo camp.
Walker, who was born John Walker Lindh but uses his mother's maiden name, became a Muslim four years ago and became involved with Islamic radicals in Central Asia.
According to his federal indictment, he took up arms alongside Taliban fighters and met with terrorist ringleader bin Laden. He was captured with other Taliban fighters after the fall of Mazar-e Sharif.
Supporters have argued that Walker was a misguided youth who did not intend to wage war on his own country. Instead of charging him with treason, a capital crime, the Justice Department applied the lesser conspiracy charge, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
"Our investigation of John Walker continues," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said Wednesday. "Our complaint filed last week, based on Walker's own words, is clear: Terrorists did not compel John Walker Lindh to join them. John Walker Lindh chose terrorists.
"Our American system of justice will allow Walker the rights and due process that the terrorists he fought side by side with sought, and still seek, to destroy."
Today's hearing is to confirm Walker's identity as the man charged in the indictment.
He will then be given a preliminary hearing on the charges and another hearing to determine whether he should remain in custody. Walker's case will then go to a grand jury, which will have 60 days to decide whether a trial should proceed. If it does, arraignment and trial are expected to follow quickly thereafter.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times