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UN Says Millions of People in Arbitrary, Unlawful Detention

The new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is calling on governments to stop the arbitrary and unlawful detention of their citizens. Pillay is launching a United Nations initiative to abolish this illegal practice and to highlight the plight of millions of people around the world who suffer unjust imprisonment and systematic violation of their human rights. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, says arbitrary arrest and unlawful imprisonment is widespread and global. She says problems relating to detention exist in almost all countries.

But, while unlawful detentions have been going on for a long time, she says they have been made worse in recent years by the so-called war on terrorism.

"Many more individuals have been placed in detention as a result of these anti-terrorism initiatives by governments in many parts of the world," said Pillay. "So, the trend in new anti-terrorism legislation in some countries appears to allow the police to detain people for longer and longer periods prior to their being charged."

In the past, people normally were detained without charge for 48 hours. Now, they often are held incommunicado for months without charge, making them more vulnerable to torture.

Pillay says she attaches great importance to the rights of all detainees to have their cases reviewed by an independent and impartial tribunal. She says she is concerned that the human and legal rights of hundreds of suspected terrorists detained by the U.S. government in Guantanamo Bay are being trampled.

But, the High Commissioner welcomes the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court confirming the constitutional right of habeas corpus for detainees in Guantanamo. Habeas Corpus places the burden of proof on those detaining the person to justify the detention.

While Guantanamo commands headline news, Pillay says it must not be forgotten that millions of people around the world suffer unjust imprisonment, or unjust treatment in prison.

"Every day around the world, there are hundreds of new cases of men, women and children being placed in detention, when they should not be - sometimes in quite inhumane conditions," she added.

The U.N. High Commissioner says people are detained for political reasons or because they are immigrants and asylum seekers. She says the poor, the disabled, orphans, women who are trafficked and sexually abused are frequently imprisoned.

She says the initiative her office is launching aims to shine the light on these forgotten victims of abuse and promote their cause for justice.