The U.S. government has invited three United Nations special rapporteurs to visit the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 505 detainees are being held in connection with the war on terrorism.
The U.N. rapporteurs have been seeking access to the Guantanamo Bay facility since shortly after it was opened in early 2002 to house detainees captured during the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. government has been considering the rapporteurs' latest request for several months, and on Friday announced that three rapporteurs who focus on detention, torture and religious freedom have been invited.
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mark Ballesteros says this is an exception to the longstanding policy of having the International Committee of the Red Cross as the only international organization allowed to send inspectors to Guantanamo. "It's extended as an exception to the department's policy regarding access to detention facilities at Guantanamo by international organizations, in an effort to broaden understanding of U.S. detention operations and to demonstrate that detainees at Guantanamo are treated humanely," he said.
Members of the U.S. Congress and hundreds of news reporters have also been allowed to visit the facility.
Lieutenant Colonel Ballesteros says the U.N. rapporteurs will have the same type of access as those visitors, and will also have the same restrictions, including not being allowed to speak to the detainees. "They'll get access similar to what we provide congressional delegations when they go down there. They'll meet with the commander of the joint task force. They'll receive a briefing on operations by the senior commands and staff, medical staff and interrogation staff. They'll visit the camps and cells housing the detainees. They'll observe operations including recreation, religious, cultural, medical and nutritional practices," he said.
The official Terms of Reference under which the U.N. rapporteurs operate call for confidential and unsupervised access to detainees if the officials consider it necessary to complete their work.
The rapporteurs, who operate independently under the auspices of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, have scheduled a news conference for Monday to respond to the invitation. One of them told a reporter at U.N. headquarters in New York on Friday that they do not know the conditions under which they have been invited, and plan to meet Saturday to discuss the issue.
The U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay has been widely criticized by international human rights groups based on spartan living conditions and allegations of torture made by detainees and their lawyers. The government has classified the detainees as "enemy combatants," putting them outside the Geneva Convention rules for prisoners of war and also outside the U.S. justice system. But it denies the torture charges and says the detainees are treated well, including being granted time for Muslim worship as well as special food.
Some detainees have been released, and next month a system of military tribunals is to resume to hear more cases. But human rights groups say the tribunals are illegal, and also complain that many of the detainees have not been formally accused of any crime. The U.S. government says some of the detainees are still providing valuable intelligence, even though many of them have been in custody for several years.
The Pentagon says 24 detainees are on a hunger strike to protest their situation,and 22 of them are receiving nutrients internally from the centers medical staff.
The strike has been going on for months, and officials say various detainees go on and off the strike as time goes by.