US Rebuffs Red Cross Request for Access to Detainees Held in Secret
By Steven R. Wiesman
The New York Times
Saturday 10 December 2005
Washington - The United States said Friday that it would continue to deny the International Committee of the Red Cross access to "a very small, limited number" of prisoners who are held in secret around the world, saying they are terrorists being kept incommunicado for reasons of national security and are not guaranteed any rights under the Geneva Conventions.
Adam Ereli, the State Department's deputy spokesman, said the United States would not alter its position after the president of the International Red Cross said in Geneva that his organization was holding discussions to gain access to all detainees, including those held in secret locations.
Mr. Ereli said that the Geneva Conventions requiring humane treatment of prisoners of war did not apply to certain terrorism suspects seized as "unlawful enemy combatants," but that, in any case, the United States treats most of them as prisoners of war.
"We're going the extra mile here," Mr. Ereli said, by allowing the Red Cross access to Al Qaeda suspects and others held at Guant�namo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan. The Red Cross also has access to prisoners held in Iraq.
Aside from those detainees, about two or three dozen terrorism suspects, including a handful of top Al Qaeda operatives, are said by current and former intelligence officials to be held in secret locations.
On Thursday in Geneva, John Bellinger, the senior legal adviser of the State Department, acknowledged that the International Red Cross does not have access to all detainees held by American forces but declined to discuss the existence of secret detention centers.
The Red Cross has recognized that some of those held by the United States are not prisoners of war, and do not have the full protection of the Geneva Conventions. But it has argued that no prisoners, not even those alleged to be terrorists, should fall into what it calls a "black hole" outside any protection under international humanitarian law. A central purpose of the Red Cross is to visit prisoners and protect their human rights.
On Friday, Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the International Red Cross, said the situation of those held secretly remained "a major concern" that would continue to be the focus of discussions with the United States. "We continue to be in an intense dialogue with them with the aim of getting access to all people detained in the framework of the so-called war on terror," he said.
Mr. Ereli of the State Department said that "cases that pose unique threats to our security" would be denied visits by the Red Cross, even on a confidential basis.
In a related development, the Defense Department announced Friday that Anne-Marie Lizin, a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 55-nation group, would visit American detention facilities at Guant�namo and may question the commanding officers and other staff members.
"The department strives for transparency in our operations to the extent possible, in light of security and operational requirements and the need to ensure the safety of our forces," a department statement said.
Mr. Ereli said "there's no legal requirement" to provide Red Cross access to Guant�namo. "Nevertheless, and even though we're not required to do so, we do provide access to the vast majority of detainees under our control, and we do accord Geneva protections to them."
The Red Cross has been seeking greater access to detainees for at least two years but has been careful to mute its criticism in order to keep the negotiations more productive, according to committee officials.
In Europe over the last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emphasized that it is American policy not to subject detainees to "cruel, inhumane or degrading" punishment in any location, no matter whether they are held by military or intelligence authorities.
Ms. Rice also said on her European trip that the United States would not hand any prisoners over to other countries in the process known as rendition without obtaining assurances that they would not be tortured.