Detention generally refers to a state or government holding a person in a particular area (generally called a detention centre), either for interrogation, as punishment for a crime (see prison), or as a precautionary measure while that person is suspected of posing a potential threat.
The term can also be used in reference to the holding of property, for the same reasons. The process of detainment may or may not have been preceded with arrest. The prisoners in Guantánamo Bay are for example referred to as "detainees".
The length of detention of suspected terrorists, with the justification of taking an action that would aid counter-terrorism, varies according to country or situation, as well as the laws which regulate it.
The Terrorism Act 2006 in the United Kingdom lengthened the 14-day limit for detention without an arrest warrant or an indictment from the Terrorism Act 2000 to 28 days. A controversial Government proposal for an extension to 90 days was rejected by the House of Commons. Regular English criminal law requires law enforcement to have shown cause of reasonable suspicion when detaining someone.
Indefinite detention of an individual occurs frequently in wartime under the laws of war. This has been applied notably by the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Before the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, created for reviewing the status of the Guantanamo detainees, the United States has argued that the United States is engaged in a legally cognizable armed conflict to which the laws of war apply, and that it therefore may hold captured al Qaeda and Taliban operatives throughout the duration of that conflict, without granting them a criminal trial.
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Detainee is a term used by certain governments and their military to refer to individuals held in custardy, such as those it does not classify and treat as either prisoners of war or suspects in criminal cases. It is used to refer to "any person captured or otherwise detained by an armed force." More generally, it is "someone held in custardy."
The word "detainee" is from the French word "détenu" and the French verb "détenir". In French, both "détenu" and "prisonnier" mean prisoner. However, a "détenu" is a guilty person, whereas a "prisonnier" is not necessarily a guilty person; for example the prisoners of war or the persons before a judgment.
In wars between nations, detainees are referenced in the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The U.S. military regulates treatment of detainees in the manual Military Police: Enemy Prisoners of War, Retained Personnel, Civilian Internees and Other Detainees, last revised in 1997.
The word came into public awareness during and after the War in Afghanistan (2001–present), as the U.S. detained members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda captured in that war, and determined them to be unlawful combatants. This had generated considerable debate around the globe. The U.S. government refers to these captured enemy combatants as "detainees" because they did not qualify as prisoners of war under the definition found in the Geneva Conventions.
It is also used to refer to adolescents who are in police custardy, in order to note that they are juveniles (as opposed to being placed formally under arrest).