- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2005

A panel of U.N. human rights investigators yesterday slammed the United States for failing to let them visit detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, saying the refusal gave credence to charges that prisoners there had been mistreated.

Bush administration officials have disputed charges of abuse and torture for the approximately 540 terror suspects held at Guantanamo. But observers working for the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Commission say they have been trying since 2002 to arrange a visit to inspect conditions and interview prisoners there.

“If you have certain allegations and no cooperation from a government, at a certain point you have to take well-founded allegations as proven,” said Manfred Nowak, an Austrian human rights lawyer and member of the panel.

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State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. government has a “strong record of cooperation” with the U.N. human rights panel.

He said top State and Defense Department officials, including Pierre Prosper, ambassador at large for war crimes issues, had briefed the U.N. investigators extensively in April on conditions and practices at Guantanamo.

“We understand what they’re looking for. We’re working with them,” Mr. Ereli said.

Defense Department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Alvin Plexico said the U.N. visit request is “still under consideration.”

He noted that the International Committee of the Red Cross has met with detainees regularly, and visitors to Guantanamo have included journalists, representatives from private human rights groups and nearly 90 members of Congress.

“Credible allegations of illegal conduct by U.S. personnel are taken seriously and investigated,” the Pentagon spokesman said.

But leaks from Red Cross visits and repeated charges by U.S. critics and prisoners released from the camp have focused intense attention on the U.S. naval base on the southeastern tip of Cuba.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has called Guantanamo a “disgrace,” and congressional Democrats have pushed for an independent commission to investigate the administration’s handling of detainees from the global war on terror.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected that idea Tuesday, saying the Defense Department has proved that it can police the detention sites.

“People are being held to account, and we think that’s the way to go with this,” he said.

The U.N. investigators said they were not accusing the U.S. government of mistreating the terror suspects held at Guantanamo, but that a visit was vital to clear up the numerous charges and complaints lodged about the facility.

“We have to act now. If not, we won’t have any credibility left,” said Leila Zerrougui, an Algerian magistrate and member of the independent panel.

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