U.N. Panel Backs Closing Prison at Guantánamo

By JOHN O'NEIL

New York Times

May 19, 2006

A United Nations panel on torture called on the United States today to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and expressed concern over reports of secret detention centers and of a practice of sending terror suspects to countries with poor human rights records.

In the report, issued by the Committee on Torture in Geneva, the panel said that the United States should clearly ban interrogation techniques like "water boarding," in which an inmate is held under water to create the fear of drowning; sexual humiliation, and the use of dogs to induce fear. It said that detainees had died during interrogation involving improper techniques.

On Guantanamo Bay, the detention center opened to hold al Qaeda, Taliban and other terror suspects after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the panel said it was "concerned" that prisoners were held for indefinite periods without sufficient legal safeguards.

The United States "should cease to detain any person at Guantanamo Bay and close this detention facility, permit access by the detainees to the judicial process or release them as soon as possible," the report said.

The panel reached no conclusion on the most explosive issue it considered, the charge that terror suspects had been held in a network of secret prisons in Eastern Europe that were not open to inspection by the International Red Cross.

The report criticized the refusal of American officials to comment on the charge, and said that the United States "should ensure that no one is detained in any secret detention facility under its de facto effective control."

The panel is composed of 10 special investigators, or rapporteurs, who make periodic reports on compliance with the international treaty banning terrorism, which the United States has signed.

Their recommendations are not binding, but the Bush administration made a significant effort to respond to charges raised during its investigation, sending more than two dozen American officials to appear before the panel earlier this month. It was the first time since the Sept. 11th attacks that a United States delegation had answered questions from an international body about abuses by soldiers and intelligence officers.

The delegation's leader, John B. Bellinger III, the State Department's legal adviser, acknowledged that there had been abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in Guantanamo, but called them isolated and said that "our record has improved."

The panel's report took note of what it called positive developments, including plans for a new Army field manual that would restrict interrogation techniques to those allowed under international law.

But it made clear that the United States and the international community remain far apart on a wide range of issues, including whether the torture treaty's protections apply to Guantanamo detainees. The panel also cited reports that the United States has been involved in "enforced disappearances," and said that it considered American officials' assertions "that such acts do not constitute acts of torture" to be "regrettable."

The panel challenged the Bush administration's practice of sending prisoners to countries where torture has been known to occur. American officials told the investigators that it only did so after receiving assurances that there would be no abuse, but the panel said that such pledges should only be accepted from countries which have good records on human rights, and after an examination of the details of an invididual case.

Military officials have said that they are trying to release many of the roughly 490 detainees now being held in Guantanamo. They say that the effort has been slowed, however, by the difficulty in arranging for clear assurances that they will not be abused when they are returned to their country of origin — in many cases, Saudi Arabia or Yemen.