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Hooding prisoners a possible breach of Geneva Convention: experts
Hooding prisoners a possible breach of Geneva Convention: experts
David Pugliese
February 15, 2005
Canadian troops who hooded and handcuffed prisoners in Afghanistan last year did potentially violate the Geneva Convention, say human rights and international law specialists. International law expert Michael Byers and Amnesty International Canada chief Alex Neve say it is a mistake for Canada's top soldier to dismiss concerns raised by a military police officer last year about the way prisoners were treated during a raid in Afghanistan. Mr. Byers, a University of British Columbia international law professor, also suggested photographing of the captives and putting those images on the Defence Department's website is a violation of the Geneva Convention. Concerns were raised last January by Maj. J.M. Wilson, commandant of the Canadian Forces Service Prison and Detention Barracks in Edmonton, who saw images of the troops with Afghan detainees. Sandbag covers had been put over the heads of the prisoners and they had been restrained using plastic ties known as flex-cuffs. "I thought we had long outgrown this method of handling prisoners and, arguably, such treatment is contrary to the Geneva Convention," the commandant wrote in an e-mail to National Defence headquarters. "Moreover, the flex-cuffs cut off blood circulation, must be checked regularly, and should normally only be used when other more appropriate restraints are unavailable." The response at headquarters to the commandant's concerns, however, was that since the Afghanistan operation was a peacekeeping mission, the detainees "are not subject to the Geneva Convention." On Sunday, Gen. Rick Hillier, Chief of Defence Staff, said Maj. Wilson's concerns were unfounded. "If there's any country whose soldiers -- men and women -- treat detainees in the appropriate manner, I guarantee you it's ours," Gen. Hillier said on CTV's Question Period. "When we put something over someone's head or blindfold them, it's for the protection of other folks to ensure that, in this case, that the individual does not see the Afghan police, or security personnel, who were involved in his detention and therefore perhaps prevent him from taking out some harm on them later on in life." The use of sandbag covers over a captive's face appears to have become a more common tactic among some western militaries. Canadian troops in the Second World War did not generally restrain German prisoners or place hoods or blindfolds over their faces. Amnesty International's Mr. Neve said: "Certainly there are concerns that hooding, for instance, may very well constitute cruel and inhumane treatment." There are many factors to look at, including how long the person was kept hooded, the nature of hooding and the reasons for it, he added. "What we need from Hillier is a commitment to look into these reports, ensure there is an independent investigation, and then make a determination as whether the concerns are groundless," said Mr. Neve. Defence officials did not respond to the comments by Mr. Neve and Mr. Byers. Mr. Neve said he was particularly troubled that anyone in the military would suggest the Geneva Convention did not apply in a peacekeeping mission. "To think that anyone is giving them advice that something as fundamental as the Geneva Convention doesn't apply is very worrying," he added. Mr. Byers, author of three books on international law and human rights, said the use of restraints and hoods appears to be unnecessary in this case since Canadian troops had overwhelming control of the situation, involving a small number of prisoners. "We have the luxury of doing the job properly. In that instance, to be pushing the envelope with sandbag covers over their heads and using the flex-cuffs when we don't need to do so is certainly contrary to the spirit of (the Geneva Convention)." Mr. Byers also questioned the Canadian Forces' practice of putting the photographs of the detainees on its Internet site. "Certainly the U.S. argued that the distribution of photographs of some of its own troops captured in Iraq was a violation of that provision," said Mr. Byers. "What's good for the goose has to be good for the gander here."
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