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UN inquiry demands immediate closure of Guantanamo

London Telegraph / Con Coughlin | February 13 2006

A United Nations inquiry has called for the immediate closure of America's Guantanamo Bay detention centre and the prosecution of officers and politicians "up to the highest level" who are accused of torturing detainees.

The UN Human Rights Commission report, due to be published this week, concludes that Washington should put the 520 detainees on trial or release them.

It calls for the United States to halt all "practices amounting to torture", including the force-feeding of inmates who go on hunger strike.

The report wants the Bush administration to ensure that all allegations of torture are investigated by US criminal courts, and that "all perpetrators up to the highest level of military and political command are brought to justice".

It does not specify who it means by "political command" but logically this would include President George W Bush.

The demands are contained in the final report of the commission's working group on arbitrary detention, which will be presented at its Geneva headquarters in the next few days. A copy of the report has been obtained exclusively by The Daily Telegraph.

The report is bound to intensify the already strained relations between the US and the UN over the Iraq war.

Washington officials yesterday denounced it as "a hatchet job" when informed of the contents by this newspaper.

"This shows precisely what is wrong with the United Nations today," said a senior official. "These people are supposed to be undertaking a serious investigation of the facts relating to Guantanamo.

"Instead, they deliver a report with a bunch of old allegations from lawyers representing released detainees that are so generalised that you cannot even tell what they are talking about.

"When the UN produces an unprofessional hatchet job like this it discredits the whole organisation."

The Bush administration has repeatedly called for the UN's wholesale reform, and the report is likely to lead to demands from Congress for a freeze on Washington's annual donations.

The authors question the right of America to classify the detainees as "enemy combatants" and argue that the "war on terror" is no justification for holding them indefinitely without charge.

The report is also deeply critical of the US over recent disclosures that some of the detainees have been subjected to force-feeding when they have gone on hunger strike.

The authors argue that force-feeding is akin to torture, and demands that "the authorities in Guantanamo Bay do not force-feed any detainee who is capable of forming a rational judgment and is aware of the consequences of refusing food."

But US officials refuted the suggestion that force-feeding is torture, arguing that they had a duty under international law to protect the lives of the detainees.

"We have a duty to prevent people killing themselves," said an official, "and we are proud of the fact that none of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay has died since it opened."

The Guantanamo Bay detention centre was adapted to hold hundreds of al-Qa'eda fighters captured during the 2001 war in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban.

More than 750 detainees have been processed by the facility during the past four years.

After interrogation by US intelligence officers, some have been released and others returned to their country of origin.

Because the al-Qa'eda fighters do not wear uniforms and have no allegiance to any government they are not covered by the Geneva Conventions.

And while there is insufficient evidence to charge most of the 520 detainees with war crimes, the US insists on the right to detain them to prevent them returning to the battlefield to carry out further attacks against the coalition.

There have already been at least 12 instances where released Guantanamo detainees have resumed attacks against the coalition.

US officials are also prepared to return detainees to their home countries, assuming those countries are prepared to receive them and that they will not be subjected to torture on their return.

While American officials are prepared to concede that there are conflicting interpretations over how the laws governing international conflict should be applied, they are furious at the way the investigation was conducted, especially the evidence that the four "special rapporteurs" who compiled the report have used to reach their conclusions.

Although Washington invited the group to visit Guantanamo at the end of last year to inspect the facility, the rapporteurs rejected the invitation after American officials made it clear that they would not be allowed to meet the detainees.

"They [the rapporteurs] were offered the same access as congressmen responsible for overseeing the facility, but they declined to take up the offer," said a government official. "And then they complain that they had no access to doctors or guards - all of which they were offered."

The Bush administration also challenges whether it is the responsibility of a body such as the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate Guantanamo.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the internationally recognised body responsible for monitoring detention facilities, visits Guantanamo on a monthly basis.

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