GENEVA (AP) – U.N. human rights investigators said Thursday they had reliable accounts of detainees being tortured at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but the United States had not responded to repeated requests to check conditions there.
“The time is up,” one investigator said.
The four independent specialists told reporters that U.N. experts had made numerous requests since early 2002 to check on the conditions of terror suspects at the U.S. Naval base in Cuba, as well as at U.S. facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
They cited “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.
“Many of these allegations have come to light through declassified (U.S.) government documents,” said a statement from the four, who report to U.N. bodies on different human rights issues.
A U.S. spokeswoman said the experts’ request to visit Guantanamo was being reviewed in Washington.
The four experts are appointed to their three-year terms by the 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission, the global body’s top rights watchdog. They are unpaid for their work, although their expenses are paid.
The United States has criticized the commission because its members include countries with tyrannical governments and poor human rights records, but the experts operate autonomously, often criticizing their own countries and others in the commission.
The failure of the United States to respond is leading the experts to conclude that Washington has something to hide, said the specialist on torture, Manfred Nowak, a professor of international law in Vienna, Austria.
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“At a certain point, you have to take well-founded allegations as proven in the absence of a clear explanation by the government,” he said, though he also noted: “We are not making a judgment if torture or treatment under degrading conditions has taken place.”
Brooks Robinson, spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to U.N. offices in Geneva, said the response is delayed because the United States’ review process is “thorough and independent” and involves the Bush administration, Congress and the U.S. judicial system.
“The main point is that their request is being addressed and discussed and reviewed in the United States,” Robinson told The Associated Press. “That process is underway.”
She also noted that U.S. policy “prohibits and condemns torture.”
“American personnel are required to follow this policy and applicable law,” she said. “Credible allegations of illegal conduct by U.S. personnel are taken seriously and investigated.”
U.S. officials have consistently denied violating the principle of humane treatment of detainees in the war on terror.
The specialists said they had yet to hear back from Washington on their latest request – made a year ago and renewed in mid-April – to visit the detention facility.
In an April meeting, U.S. officials refused to guarantee the right to speak to detainees in private – an “absolute precondition” for such a visit, Nowak said.
“We deeply regret that the government of the United States has still not invited us to visit those persons arrested, detained or tried on grounds of alleged terrorism or other violations,” the experts said.
“The time is up. We have to act now,” said Leila Zerrougui, an Algerian magistrate who reports on arbitrary detention. “If not, we won’t have any credibility left.”
Paul Hunt, a law professor from New Zealand who monitors physical and mental health, said he wanted to investigate in person “persistent and credible reports” of alleged violations.
“Reportedly medical staff have assisted in the design of interrogation strategies, including sleep deprivation and other coercive interrogation methods,” Hunt said.
The experts said they decided to express their misgivings because “the lack of a definitive answer despite repeated requests suggests that the United States is not willing to cooperate with the United Nations human rights machinery on this issue.”
“We are all worried about this situation,” said Argentinian jurist Leandro Despouy, specialist on the independence of judges and lawyers.
U.S. officials so far have allowed only the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit detainees at Guantanamo, which started being used as a detention center for terror suspects allegedly linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.
The ICRC keeps its findings confidential, reporting them solely to the detaining power, although some of the reports have been leaked by what the ICRC says were third parties.
The U.N. experts would be expected to make a public report.
Associated Press reporters Uta Harnischfeger and Alexander G. Higgins contributed to this report.