Thursday May 20, 10:51 AM
SYDNEY (AFP) - US soldiers in Afghanistan bound and beat
Australian captive David Hicks because he was a "white boy" who was helping the enemy, a former cellmate told The Australian newspaper in an article published.
But Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the latest allegations of abuse against Hicks, who is currently held as a terrorist suspect at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be taken "with a grain of salt".
Shah Mohammed, 22, said he had been detained by US troops along with Hicks first in the Mazar-i-Sharif prison in northern Afghanistan in 2001 and then at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The pair had been captured fighting for Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.
"There were three two-hour sessions," he said of the US interrogations of Hicks. "They used their fists -- three or four Americans in uniform." Shah was quoted as telling a correspondent for the newspaper in Swat Valley Pakistan.
"The other detainees would be tied up with rope on one hand and one foot, but Hicks they tied up both hands and both feet," Shah said.
He said the US troops appeared to be particularly incensed against Hicks, a 28-year-old convert to Islam, because he was a "white boy" fighting for the Taliban.
Publication of Shah's account followed allegations by Hicks' Australian lawyer, Stephen Kenny, that his client had been criminally abused by his US captors on orders of senior American commanders.
And on Wednesday the general in charge of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners told the US Senate that guards had been charged with inflicting "minor abuse" on three or four prisoners, but he denied any "systemic abuse" at the base.
Howard, one of Washington's closest allies, dismissed Shah's allegations, saying his government had no information concerning any abuse against Hicks or another Australian detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Mamdouh Habib.
"I find it strange that these allegations of abuse against Mr Hicks and Mr Habib have arisen only since the prisoner abuse scandal erupted in relation to the American forces (in Iraq)," Howard said in a television interview.
"These complaints were not made previously," Howard said, adding that neither Australian consular personnel nor Red Cross officials who visited Hicks and Habib in Guantanamo Bay reported any allegations of abuse.
"We do have to place that caveat and take those allegations with a grain of salt," he said.
But the Australian leader said his government would pursue the matter even though US authorities have already denied the allegations.
"We will obviously seek further assurances from the United States and ask for further information," he said.
Kenny told The Australian that Shah's charges added weight to his demands for a "full and proper" inquiry into the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.
Kenny said Hicks had told him of cases of abuse by US troops, but the lawyer is unable to provide details due to a confidentiality pledge he signed with US authorities.