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Human Rights Watch Says Guantanamo Undermines US on Rights Issues


The head of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch says detention-without-trial and other practices in the war on terrorism have undermined U.S. credibility on human-rights issues. Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth spoke to VOA in connection with Tuesday's release of the State Department's annual report on human rights conditions worldwide. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The Human Rights Watch chief says while the United States has never been active enough in working to end rights abuses cited in the State Department reports, the problem has been compounded by U.S. rights practices that undermine American credibility on the issue.

In a VOA interview, Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth said there is still value in the annual reports as a resource in identifying human-rights problems.

He said the United States, as a vigorous democracy, can legitimately challenge such things as abuses in Darfur and infringements on press freedoms and civil liberties abroad.

But Roth said the problem of hypocrisy emerges on other rights issues, with the United States holding terror suspects without trial at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and perhaps elsewhere, and tolerating coercive interrogation techniques.

"It is very difficult for the U.S. government today to condemn a government for the use of torture, when the CIA itself has tortured people using techniques such as water-boarding in the secret CIA detention facilities," Roth said. "Similarly it is hard for the U.S. government to protest against the detention of somebody without trial, when it has hundreds of people held for up to five years in Guantanamo with a trial only a distant hope."

Roth criticized Bush administration plans to try terror suspects through military commissions, a concept he said fell well short of accepted judicial standards and which he predicted would eventually be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

He said at least some of the U.S. detainees have probably committed serious crimes and deserve to be brought to trial. But he said they should be trials in which the defendant is allowed to challenge all the evidence and testimony against him, and in which hearsay evidence is invalid.

As to the Guantanamo facility, which has housed terrorism suspects since early 2002, Roth said that should be shut down outright.

"Guantanamo should simply be closed," he said. "I mean it has become a symbol of injustice. It is a scar on America's reputation around the world. And there is no reason what anyone should continue to be held there. People should either be tried before a fair and proper tribunal or they should be released."

Late last month, Human Rights Watch sent U.S. Congressional leaders a letter urging 10 steps it said would restore U.S. moral authority on human rights while still allowing an effective counterterrorism strategy.

At the top of the list was the restoration of the right of habeas corpus, ensuring that all those held by the United States are allowed to challenge their detention in court.

Human Rights Watch further called for a Congressional ban on the practice of rendition - the transfer of U.S. terror suspects to other countries where they could face torture. Human Rights Watch also urged the closeure of any secret detention facilities, a ban on abusive interrogations, and full respect for the Geneva Conventions regarding prisoners of war.

Roth said damage to U.S. prestige is not irreversible and said if the steps his organization proposes are taken it would go a long way toward redeeming America's moral authority.