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UN rights experts step up pressure for visits to terror suspects

Geneva | June 25 1512 edt

AFP – In an unprecedented joint statement, 31 United Nations human rights experts said that they want to visit all terror suspects held in Iraq, Afghanistan, the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and elsewhere.

The statement, signed by nearly all UN independent human rights experts, did not mention the United States or any other detaining authority by name.

But, in a thinly veiled reference to the abuse of prisoners in US custody in Iraq, they said they were motivated by “a number of recent developments that have alarmed the international community with regard to the status, conditions of detention and treatment of prisoners in specific locations”.

The UN experts, who usually operate separately, said they wanted a team of four to be allowed to check on conditions for those held in “Iraq, Afghanistan, the Guantanamo Bay military base and elsewhere”.

The four are: the special rapporteurs on torture, Theo van Boven, on the right to health, Paul Hunt, on the independence of judges and lawyers, Leandro Despouy, as well as Leila Zerrougui, the head of the UN working group on arbitrary detention.

The UN experts have never made such a collective approach to governments before, UN human rights spokesman Jose Diaz told AFP.

Van Boven told journalists that individual UN experts had asked to visit detention centres such as Guantanamo Bay before, “but no answer has been forthcoming”.

“So this is now a collective demarche in the hope that it will have more effect,” the UN expert said.

The UN move came as Britain’s top legal adviser prepared to make a public speech in London saying that military tribunals possibly being prepared at Guantanamo Bay could not offer a fair trial under international law.

According to early copies of his speech, Lord Peter Goldsmith will tell legal experts that while some fundamental rights might be limited under certain conditions, “there are certain principles on which there can be no compromise”.

“Fair trial is one of those — which is the reason we in the United Kingdom have been unable to accept that the US military tribunals proposed for those detained at Guantanamo Bay offer sufficient guarantees of a fair trial in accordance with international standards,” he added.

The United Nations statement also reflected fears that some detainees may be held secretly in undisclosed locations, well away from scrutiny by the Red Cross or other international agencies.

The UN experts said they had a “unanimous desire” for the team to visit “together and at the earliest possible date”, people “arrested, detained or tried on grounds of alleged terrorism or other violations”.

The group would try to “ascertain… that international human rights standards are properly upheld with regard to these persons” and were ready to provide advice to authorities, the statement added.

The experts indicated that they intended to present the results of their approach — whether successful or not — in public at the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights in spring 2005.

Recent revelations of mistreatment and abuse at US-run prisons in Iraq caused an international outcry.

Some of the US soldiers or officers allegedly implicated in the scandal are currently being heard by a military court in Baghdad.

One soldier told the court that a senior military intelligence commander at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison had been present when a detainee died during questioning.

Van Boven reiterated that the International Convention Against Torture — signed by 136 states including the United States — outlaws not only torture but also cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

“The prohibition is an absolute one, it may not be derogated in any circumstances,” he added, referring to US officials condoning some stressful or humiliating interrogation techniques for terror suspects.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last year approved 24 interrogation techniques, including seven not in the army’s field manual, for use on certain prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, a Pentagon spokesman said earlier this month.

Justice Department lawyers are reported to have argued that torture could be justified as a necessity to prevent terror attacks, raising questions about the actual interrogation techniques that have been authorized.

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