Friday, February 17, 2006

Pressure over Guantanamo rises

Pressure over Guantanamo rises
By Richard Waddington

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday came under mounting international pressure to close its Guantanamo prison, with U.N. investigators saying detainees there faced treatment amounting to torture.

In a 40-page report, which had already been largely leaked, five United Nations special envoys said the United States was violating a host of human rights, including a ban on torture, arbitrary detention and the right to a fair trial.

The White House, calling the Guantanamo detainees "dangerous terrorists," dismissed the report as a reworking of past allegations and said that inmates were humanely treated.

But the findings could fuel anger among Arabs already incensed by images of abuse of Iraqi inmates at Baghdad's U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison newly broadcast by Australian television.

"The United States government should close the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities without further delay," the human rights rapporteurs declared.

Until that happened, the U.S. government should "refrain from any practice amounting to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," they added.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he did not agree with everything in the report, produced by independent experts for the inter-governmental U.N. Human Rights Commission, but he believed the prison should be closed as soon as possible.

"Sooner or later there will be a need to close Guantanamo and it will be up to the government to decide and hopefully to do it as soon as possible," he told reporters in New York.

He said it was important to balance the interests of effective action against terrorism with the need to protect individual rights, but people should not be detained "in perpetuity" and should be prosecuted or released.

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour, who has frequently urged the United States to try the detainees or free them, told the BBC in London that the jail should be shut.

Many of the 500 inmates of the prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba have been held for four years without trial. The prisoners were mainly detained in Afghanistan and are held as pat of President George W. Bush's declared war against terrorism.

Adding its voice to the clamor, the European parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday for a resolution urging the prison be closed and inmates given a fair trail.


Bush's spokesman Scott McClellan said the report appeared to be "a rehash of some of the allegations that have been made by lawyers for some of the detainees and we know that al Qaeda detainees are trained in trying to disseminate false allegations."

He also indicated that the calls to close the jail would fall on deaf ears.

"These are dangerous terrorists that we're talking about that are there and I think we've talked about that issue before and nothing's changed in terms of our views," McClellan added.

Amnesty International backed the call for shutting down Guantanamo, which it said represented "just the tip of the iceberg" of U.S.-run detention facilities worldwide.

"The U.S. can no longer make the case, morally or legally, for keeping it open," the London-based human rights group said.

The report said harsh treatment, such as placing detainees in solitary confinement, stripping them naked, subjecting them to severe temperatures and threatening them with dogs could amount to torture, which is banned in all circumstances.

The five investigators said they were particularly concerned by attempts by the U.S. administration to "redefine" the nature of torture to allow some interrogation techniques.

Washington, which denies any international laws are being broken, accused the U.N. investigators of acting like prosecution lawyers with the report, selecting only those elements that backed their case.

The Bush administration also denies that the force-feeding of inmates on hunger strike, which it says was undertaken to save their lives, amounted to cruel treatment.

The five U.N. investigators, who include Manfred Nowak, special rapporteur on torture, and Leila Zerrougui, chairwoman of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, said the findings were based on interviews with past detainees, lawyers and replies to questions put to the U.S. government.

The five turned down a U.S. offer to visit the detention center late last year because Washington would not allow them to interview individual detainees.

Communist Cuba, which has accused Washington of turning the base on the island's southerastern tip into a "concentration camp," said U.S. rejection of the report came as no surprise.

"The United States only accepts reports that are favorable. It is not surprising it continues to ignore the U.N. whenever convenient," said Ricardo Alarcon, speaker of Cuba's National Assembly.