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U.S.: Rumsfeld Defends 'No Access' Decision On Guantanamo Detainees

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (file photo) (AFP) U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is defending Washington's decision not to allow UN human rights investigators to interview terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Three UN experts were given permission in late October to visit the detention facility at a U.S. Naval base in Cuba. But the UN officials say Washington's conditions violate the basic requirements of fact-finding missions -- preventing any objective and fair assessment of conditions for detainees. The UN team says it won't accept the invitation unless private interviews are allowed with detainees.

Prague, 2 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has spurned a request by UN human rights investigators to meet privately with terror suspects held in the U.S.-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

Rumsfeld told journalists at the Pentagon yesterday that Washington considers it adequate that the only people allowed to speak with detainees are their defense attorneys or investigators from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

"This is a government decision, a matter of policy as to what extent they want to open that aperture and allow any number of additional organizations that exist in the world to do [private interviews with Guantanamo detainees]," Rumsfeld said. "Apparently the United States government has made a decision -- not the Pentagon. But the government has made a decision that they think that having the ICRC do [private interviews with detainees] is the appropriate thing. And so that's that."

UN human rights investigators with different mandates have been trying for almost four years to get access to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. A group of five special rapporteurs joined efforts in June of 2004 to examine the situation of detainees there.

On 27 October, Washington agreed to allow three of those UN officials to make a visit in early December -- but only on condition that they be guided by U.S. military escorts and do not meet with detainees.

Manfred Nowak, the UN special rapporteur on torture, said his team is willing to accept most of Washington's conditions. But he said the invitation will be rejected if UN officials are only allowed the same kind of guided tour provided in the past to journalists and U.S. lawmakers.

"The only condition that we did not accept was that we would have no access to detainees and private interviews," Nowak said. "It would just not make sense to do a fact-finding mission when you cannot talk to the detainees."

Another of the UN rapporteurs invited for the visit is Leila Zerrougui -- an Algerian woman who heads the UN's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Zerrougui said she also will not agree to conditions that reduce the scope of the fact-finding mission to a guided tour group.

"We accept to go to a country when this country accepts to receive us," Zerrougui said. "But we go to a country with a minimum of standards. We can not force the door into a country. But if a country accepts to receive us, we have to be sure that we can conduct an objective, impartial and effective fact-finding mission. That's all. It is common sense. Even if it is not binding. But we cannot go to a country to have a guided tour."

Nowak disagreed with the notion that access to detainees by Red Cross officials is adequate. He said the ICRC investigators cannot resolve international concerns over allegations of torture at Guantanamo Bay because they are not allowed to report their findings publicly.

"The ICRC is the main body monitoring compliance with international humanitarian law. We are monitors of international human rights law," Nowak said. "So there is no competition whatsoever. And, of course, the ICRC is bound by its very strict rules of confidentiality. And we are rapporteurs to report publicly to the Commission on Human Rights in the [UN] General Assembly."

Nowak also rejected Washington's argument that interviews with detainees pose a security threat to the United States. He suggested that Washington has a double standard on torture allegations compared to the administration's position on investigations at Chinese prisons.

"It can't be a security concern that we should not be in the same position to meet them in private," Nowak said. "So there are no convincing reasons why we should be exempted from these standard terms of reference of fact-finding missions. The United States has really encouraged China to invite me as special rapporteur on torture -- and, of course, has always stressed also in its discussions with the Chinese government that these kinds of visits must be in accordance with the standard terms of reference."

Meanwhile, the Pentagon also announced yesterday that 27 Guantanamo detainees have been on a hunger strike since August. The Pentagon said 24 of those detainees have received forced feedings.

The revelation follows an order a week ago by U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler for the release of medical records on detainees who are being force-fed.

Judge Kessler said lawyers for detainees have presented "deeply troubling" allegations about U.S. personnel violently shoving feeding tubes through men's noses and into their stomachs without anesthesia or disinfectant.

Kessler noted in her order that those allegations are "explicitly, specifically and vigorously denied" by the U.S. government.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights estimated that more than 200 of Guantanamo Bay's 500 detainees are taking part in the hunger strike in protest of their living conditions and lack of legal rights.

Lawyers for detainees accuse Washington of deliberately under-stating the scope of the hunger strike.

Rumsfeld yesterday distanced himself from the decision to force-feed detainees, saying he is not a doctor and only knows about the situation "from a distance."

Rumsfeld said the U.S. Army is the "executive agent for detainees" at Guantanamo and is in the best position to determine whether hunger strikers should be force-fed.

"They have made the decision -- the decision that they think it is appropriate to provide nourishment to several people in their detention who decided not to provide normal nourishment to themselves," he said.

Rumsfeld also downplayed the scope of the hunger strike, saying many detainees are merely been fasting for a few days at a time in rotation with each other.

U.S. military commanders at Guantanamo say the facility is operated "in a humane manner." The head of the hospital at the detention center has told the court that only doctors and nurses have inserted feeding tubes.