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Sources: Rights pledge for Gitmo detainees

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Guantanamo detainees kneel in this 2002 Defense Department picture.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- All detainees in U.S. military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are to be granted all the privileges of the Geneva Conventions, sources have told CNN.

This is the first time the detainees -- including those suspected of being members of al Qaeda -- will have the full protection of the international conventions on holding prisoners of war.

The new guidelines are to be released in a memo from the Pentagon, the sources said on Tuesday.

The Bush administration has previously declared the prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba to be "enemy combatants," but did not consider them prisoners of war who must be accorded the rights spelled out by the Geneva Conventions.

Guantanamo Bay holds about 460 people suspected of links to al Qaeda or the Taliban, who were captured in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks. They are detained without trial or the right to family visits.

Detention without charges runs counter to established human-rights law, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that prisoners could challenge their detention in U.S. courts.

Last month the Supreme Court also strongly limited the power of the Bush administration to conduct military tribunals for suspected terrorists at the camp. However it did not address the government's right to detain suspects.

After that ruling U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told CNN the ruling "hampered our ability" to deal with terrorists. (Full story)

The White House had planned to try suspects in military tribunals as "enemy combatants." They would not be eligible for the rights, as established by the Geneva Conventions, guaranteed to prisoners of war. (Watch analyst say administration has to start over -- 3:50)

Saying that many people detained at Guantanamo Bay have been freed and returned to their homes, Gonzales said the United States had "no great desire to hold people forever and we don't intend to hold people forever."

Asked about the court's conclusion that the administration's system doesn't meet the basic requirements guaranteed by the Geneva Convention on rights of prisoners of war, Gonzales said the White House needed to study the issue before it responded.

"I will say that from the outset the president has said that people detained by the military are going to be treated consistent with the principle of the Geneva Convention subject to military necessity."

Gonzales questioned the adequacy of a court-martial, as opposed to tribunal, in trying al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

Under a court-martial, Gonzales said, bin Laden would "receive the same sort of procedures and protections that we afford members of our military" if he were captured.

Most Gitmo prisoners were captured in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are still battling the Taliban, the Islamic movement that harbored al Qaeda when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

The camp was condemned around the world shortly after it opened when pictures were published showing prisoners kneeling, shackled and being herded into wire cages.

It intensified after reports of prisoner abuse, heavy-handed interrogations, hunger strikes, suicides and accounts from released detainees who described years of desperation associated with the legal limbo that has ensnared hundreds of prisoners.

The suicides of three detainees at Guantanamo Bay last month sparked renewed calls for the U.S. prison camp to be shut down.

"Guantanamo should be closed. This is an occasion to reiterate that statement," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said at the time.

Jumana Musa, Amnesty International USA's advocacy director for domestic human rights and international justice, released a statement pointedly blaming the Bush administration for the suicides and calling Guantanamo "an indictment on its deteriorating human rights record."

"By rounding up men from all over the world and confining them in an isolated penal colony without charge or trial, the United States has violated several U.S. and international laws and treaties," Musa said in the statement.

In May the U.N. issued a report saying that holding suspects indefinitely without charges violates the world torture ban and established human rights law.

The May 19 report called for the shutdown of Guantanamo and any secret prisons the U.S. operates.

CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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