A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross has informally advised the US it should improve the treatment of Afghanistan prisoners at its naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, regardless of whether the detainees are officially designated "prisoners of war".
The advice, part of which focused on the cramped and exposed detention cubicles at the base, was conveyed privately to US authorities by a four-member team visiting the Guantanamo Bay prison.
The team is understood to have raised the concerns, including suggestions that the US should consider designating the detainees PoWs, in informal talks with US forces guarding the prisoners.
US public awareness of international concern about the treatment of detainees, at first limited, has grown in the past few days, particularly since the release of official photographs.
Adding to the controversy, a US court will today hear the first legal challenge over treatment of the prisoners. A federal judge in Los Angeles will consider a petition backed by former US attorney-general Ramsey Clark and other civil rights advocates that challenges the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Judge A. Howard Matz must decide whether a federal court has jurisdiction over prisoners held in Cuban territory leased to the US, and whether the petitioners have legal standing to pursue the case.
PoW status would guarantee the detainees certain rights and protections that can be denied if the US continues to define them as "unlawful combatants". But the ICRC has made it clear it expects the US to conform to basic standards of "humane treatment" for all prisoners, regardless of their status.
The US has insisted prisoners taken in the course of its war on terrorism do not conform to the Geneva convention's four-point criteria for PoW status.
An ICRC spokesman in Geneva yesterday suggested the US may have contravened an article of the Geneva Conventions by releasing photographs of the prisoners. The spokesman said one of the articles on prisoners of war forbade the exposing of captives "to public curiosity".
In some of the strongest remarks yet among US allies, the European Union on Monday said detainees at Guantanamo Bay should receive all the benefits offered by the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.
"We believe behaviour towards these people is dictated by international conventions," EU foreign policy chief representative Javier Solana told Spanish television. "The Geneva Convention should apply to all people arrested in such circumstances."