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UN Committee against Torture: Shut down Guantanamo Bay
By Paul Reynolds
May 19, 2006

The UN Committee against Torture's call for the closure of Guantanamo Bay shows that international voices are increasingly being raised against the institutions set up by the United States in its "war on terror", and not just against the treatment of prisoners in them.

The definitions and legal limits of the structures and the practices the US has followed are all being tested - and in many cases found wanting - as it tries to conduct what it regards as a war vital to its well-being.

This latest criticism has come from the UN body charged with overseeing compliance with the UN convention against torture and other inhuman treatment.

The committee is made up of 10 independent, international human rights experts, one of them an American, Felice Gaer, who has a long record of human rights work. The committee periodically summons member states to justify their policies.

It was blunt about the Guantanamo Bay camp: "The state party should cease to detain any person at Guantanamo Bay and close the detention facility."

Prisoners there should be given access to a "judicial process" or released, and not sent anywhere they could face torture.

It also said that the United States should not send any prisoner to any state where they could be tortured, a reference to the practice of "rendering" suspects, often secretly, from one country to another.

It called for any secret detention camps to be disclosed.

"The state party should ensure that no-one is detained in any secret detention facility under its de facto effective control," it said.

It also called for all prisoners anywhere to be registered.

As for the issue of torture and ill treatment, it said: "The state party should take immediate measures to eradicate all forms of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by its military or civilian personnel, in any territory under its jurisdiction," the implication being that such practices might still be continuing.

The practices of "waterboarding" (in which a suspect experiences a feeling of drowning) and the use of dogs to instil fear should not be permitted, it said.

Criticism mounts

The committee's conclusion follows a recent speech by the British Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith, who hardened the rhetoric of the US's close ally by declaring that the Guantanamo Bay camp was "unacceptable".

Even President Bush has found himself on the defensive, saying recently that he would like to close the camp and was waiting for a Supreme Court ruling in a case involving Osama Bin Laden's driver, expected by the end of June.

This case will determine whether military tribunals trying detainees are legal. However, if the tribunals are declared legal, then presumably the detentions and the camp will continue.

The UN report follows detailed questioning of US legal representatives at hearings at the committee's Geneva headquarters in May.

At those hearings, the US team refused to talk in detail about rendition beyond saying that the US did not transport people to a country where they might be tortured, a form of words devised by the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a visit to Europe.

Nor would the 25-strong US delegation talk about any secret camps.

However, it did defend its record and reforms.

The delegation's leader, John Bellinger - a lawyer from the State Department - pointed out that last year Congress had passed the Detainee Treatment Act, which included a provision against the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as defined in the convention.

Mr Bellinger said that under the act "no person in the custody of or under the physical control of the United States government, regardless of nationality of physical location, should be subject to cruel, unusual or inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by certain provisions of the [US] Constitution".

The committee welcome this statement in its report.

This provision came about, however, only after a strong campaign led by Senator John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

And President Bush has reserved a right to interpret his powers as commander-in-chief as he sees fit, which is taken to mean that in extreme circumstances (for example, in the questioning of a suspect with knowledge of an impending attack) the provision might be ignored.

The delegation acknowledged that 29 people had died from suspected abuse while in US custody.

Mr Bellinger also said: "I would ask you not to believe every allegation that you've heard. Allegations about US military or intelligence activities have become so hyperbolic as to be absurd."


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