by Gustavo Capdevila
(IPS) GENEVA -- Four UN human rights experts said Thursday that they will investigate all aspects of detention at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where some 500 prisoners are being held without charges, despite the U.S. government's failure to respond to repeated requests to allow a visit there.
The four investigators said they had received no reply from Washington to the request they made over a year ago to be permitted to visit Guantanamo, where the Bush administration has held foreign terror suspects with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban since early 2002.
These men, who the U.S. government describes as "enemy combatants," are not recognized as prisoners of war, have been informed of no charges, and have no right to a legal defense.
The request to be allowed to visit was based on "information from reliable sources of serious allegations of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, arbitrary detention, violations of their right to health and their due process rights," said the UN specialists.
Despite the lack of cooperation from U.S. authorities, the investigators said they would carry out a joint investigation into "all issues around Guantanamo Bay detention facilities," by studying reports and evidence from credible sources, including declassified U.S. documents.
The results of the inquiry will be presented at the next session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, slated for March and April 2006.
Thursday's statement was made by Leandro Despouy of Argentina, the UN representative on the independence of judges and lawyers, Paul Hunt of New Zealand, representative on the right to health, Manfred Nowak of Austria, representative on torture, and Leila Zerrougui of Algeria, chairperson and representative for the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
In April 2004, the four UN special rapporteurs addressed a "strong and urgent request" to the U.S. government to invite them to visit "Guantanamo Bay and other places of detention under U.S. authority where persons suspected of terrorism are held, in particular in Iraq and in Afganistan," said Nowak.
"It's now one year later that we are again assembling...and we have not yet received a definitive answer by the U.S. government concerning this visit," at least to Guantanamo Bay, said the rapporteur on torture, who also pointed out that they had not received a definitive no, either.
The mandates held by the four experts are directly related to the main concerns about Guantanamo, such as the conditions of detention and lengthy detentions without trial, Nowak observed.
Despouy noted that the prisoners have been held for over three years, and said that "accepting this implies accepting a regression in the rule of law in the world."
"I have received numerous allegations of torture, ill-treatment, etc. from detainees in Guantanamo, from lawyers, from NGOs (non-governmental organizations," said Nowak. "But it is our usual practise before we arrive at any kind of conclusions...to carry out an objective investigation taking into account all information from both governmental and non-governmental sources," he added.
Zerrougui said her working group was especially concerned about the prisoners held in Guantanamo for more than three and a half years.
Among the reasons for concern she cited were that the detainees were subjected to interrogations, and the possibility that they had not been notified of charges against them.
Hunt said he was "anxious to visit because of persistent and credible reports of alleged violations of the rights to health of the detainees," who were captured in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries as part of Washington's "war on terror."
"According to reports there has been a worrying deterioration in the mental health of many of the detainees. It is alleged that there are dozens of suicide attempts. Reportedly medical staff have assisted in the design of interrogation strategies, including sleep deprivation and other coercive interrogation methods," he added.
"The best way for me to check the accuracy of these and other allegations concerning the health of detainees is of course to visit, to see the conditions for myself, to talk privately with detainees and to discuss on site with medical staff and others," said Hunt.
"So I'm extremely disappointed that despite waiting for 18 months, and despite several requests, the authorities have not seen fit to grant permission to visit Guantanamo Bay," he concluded.
At the presentation of Amnesty International's annual report in late May, the London-based rights watchdog's secretary-general Irene Khan referred to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility as "the gulag of our times," and said it evoked images of Soviet repression.
In response, Bush quipped: "It seemed like (Amnesty) based some of their decisions on the word and allegations by people who were held in detention, people who hate America."
Hunt said Thursday that "To those who argue that the detainees are bad people, I reply that whether they are good or bad the rule of law extends to them because they are human beings. That's what distinguishes a system of government based on the rule of law from one that is based on the arbitrary exercise of power.
"The rule of law cannot be applied selectively. A state cannot respect the rule of law in one place but not in another, for one group of people and not another," he underlined.
Despouy said that since he was named special rapporteur three years ago, he has been focusing on the problem of unacknowledged detainees, which he described as a serious international problem.
He explained that his mandate refers to the universal right to a fair trial by an independent, impartial judge.
Unacknowledged detainees, who are usually held by the military, have no right to a legal defense, are not informed of the charges against them, and are deprived of their fundamental right to a fair trial, said Despouy.
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