Monday, September 1, 2008

Diggers under fire over dog pen prisons

Australian soldiers are being accused of cultural insensitivity and breaching the Geneva Conventions in their treatment of prisoners of war in Afghanistan.

The special forces troops used dog pens to detain suspected Taliban militants in an operation after the death of SAS Corporal Jason Marks four months ago.

Ikebal Patel, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, says he is shocked by the revelation.

"I'm appalled that the Australian soldiers have been in any way implicated with such disgusting treatment of human beings," he told AM.

"I mean we've heard about the Americans doing similar things of late in Iraq and one never expected that a great country such as Australia would go to such levels."

He says it is particularly offensive for people of the Muslim faith to be penned in a dog cage.

"Dogs are, in Islam, taken that they are animals of prey, they are used for hunting, they are used for food gathering in some places, and therefore they are great friends and great company to have, at the same time dogs are also considered actually not clean," he said.

Speaking on ABC NewsRadio, Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon acknowledged the cultural sensitivites for Muslim people regarding dogs and said he regretted events that inflamed those sensitivities.

He stopped short of voicing an apology, saying that he was confident that the Australian soldiers had complied with the rules of engagement and international law in a situation where they had few choices.

"Our people were patrolling far away from our main base in Tarin Kowt near one of our forward operating bases. They did detain people suspected of the worst and most atrocious acts. And they detained them in the most practical way available to them at the time," Mr Fitzgibbon said.

He also said that published descriptions of the holding facility as "dog kennels" were provocative, saying that a report to him on the situation was not consistent with the allegations made against the soldiers who captured the militant suspects.

"They were in a compound I've had described to me as a walled compound which I'm sure is used for a variety of purposes," he said.

"I'm advised that the compound is from time to time used to hold dogs, yes. Dogs are a very important part of our operations there."

Mr Fitzgibbon says he is confident there has been no breach of the Geneva Conventions which ensure prisoners of war are treated humanely.

"We will always endeavour to comply with all aspects of international law," he said.

"We are at war in Afghanistan with people who would employ any tactic including the use of children as shields and as a means of propaganda and it's a tough battle.

"But we always endeavour to comply on all occasions with international law and I'm confident that our people have done so.

"Australian soldiers are well known as the best fighters in the world and the fairest fighters in the world; always complying with their rules of engagement and always consistent with international law."

Bill Crews, national president of the RSL, says it is too early to criticise Australian troops on the ground.

"There may be extraneous circumstances in this case but I know that our men and women certainly comply with the laws of armed conflict," he said.

But he concedes that in the heat of an operation it can be difficult to abide by conventions.

"It certainly tests our people. It's a very difficult environment - not only environmentally stressful but psychologically stressful," he said.

"There are circumstances where you need to take extraordinary measures to do the job and that might be one of the cases here that we're referring to."

But Mr Patel says he expected more from the new Government.

"[For] the Defence Minister in the new Government to have said something like that it actually quite appalls me to say the least," he said.

"No human being should be in any way placed in a dog pen, full-stop, period."


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