U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has sharply criticized the human rights group Amnesty International for calling the U.S. military prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay "the gulag of our time." But the organization is accusing the secretary of hypocrisy, and of ignoring legitimate criticism of conditions at U.S. military prisons for years.
Secretary Rumsfeld used his opening statement at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday to level some fairly harsh criticism at one of the world's most highly respected human rights organizations. "Free societies depend on oversight and they welcome informed criticism, particularly on human rights issues. But those who make such outlandish charges lose any claim to objectivity or seriousness," he said.
Last week, Amnesty International called the detention center at Guantanamo Bay a "gulag," comparing it to the network of Soviet prison camps where tens of thousands of people were held under extremely harsh conditions for decades for alleged political crimes. Secretary Rumsfeld said the comparison is "reprehensible."
"The people being detained at Guantanamo are, with good reason, suspected terrorists," he said. "Many, if not most, have been systematically trained to lie, and to claim torture. At least a dozen of the 200 already released from Gitmo have already been caught, back on the battlefield, involved in efforts to kidnap and kill Americans."
In a statement issued shortly after Mr. Rumsfeld spoke, Amnesty International accused the Bush administration of ignoring its criticisms for years, while eagerly quoting its criticism of U.S. adversaries, including Iraq's former leader, Saddam Hussein. The organization also charged that Secretary Rumsfeld personally approved illegal interrogation methods at Guantanamo and other facilities, techniques it says amount to torture, and said he and other senior U.S. officials should be held accountable.
Amnesty says the U.S. government has barred its investigators from visiting Guantanamo and other detention centers for alleged terrorists. U.S. officials note that the International Red Cross is allowed to visit the prisons.
At his news conference, Secretary Rumsfeld acknowledged there has been some mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere, but he said such treatment is rare and those responsible have been prosecuted. And he said changes have been made to avoid such mistreatment in the future.
"There's so much transparency in Gitmo and so much oversight," he said. "There have been so many reforms instituted in the Army, in the Navy, in the Air Force, in the Department of Defense, and the oversight and the attention that's been given to what's taking place at Gitmo is extensive. And the implication that it's a gulag is what's wrong, not what's going on at Gitmo."
Secretary Rumsfeld said the Bush administration decision not to provide the rights of the Geneva Convention to Al-Qaida fighters captured in Afghanistan was accompanied by an order that they should be treated humanely. He noted that their living conditions are nothing like the Soviet gulag, with special provisions made for the detainees' religious beliefs, including special food and the opportunity to pray according to Muslim traditions.
The secretary also criticized the media for focusing on problems at the detention centers, and, he said, virtually ignoring improvements at the facilities, as well as ignoring what he called "terrorist atrocities."