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ICRC challenges US over Guantanamo prisoners

The ICRC says the Guantanamo detainees should be given legal rights. Keystone

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is in the United States to discuss the legal status of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

This content was published on January 14, 2004 - 20:56

Jakob Kellenberger hopes to persuade the Bush administration that the prisoners are entitled to certain rights under international humanitarian law.

The Geneva-based ICRC has criticised what it calls the “illegality” of holding some 660 people at the US naval base in Cuba for two years without charge.

“We believe that the Guantanamo detainees have somehow been placed beyond the law, and the idea that any individual can fall outside any legal framework is not acceptable for us,” ICRC spokesman Florian Westphal told swissinfo.

The Bush administration says the detainees - most of whom were captured during the US-led war in Afghanistan in 2001 - are "enemy combatants" and are therefore not entitled to the same rights normally available to prisoners of war.

They have no right to a lawyer and may be held indefinitely without charge, says the US government.

“Whether these detainees are considered prisoners of war or not, they must have a legal status, whether it's within international or domestic law,” said Westphal.

Slow progress

ICRC representatives have made repeated visits to the camp. The next visit is scheduled for the end of January.

Kellenberger wants Washington to address the ICRC's concerns, but Westphal admits there has been little progress to date.

“Mr Kellenberger hopes to achieve progress on two key issues: the continued absence of due legal process for the detainees and significant changes at the base itself, which he requested in May 2003 and is now following up because he feels a lot more needs to be done,” said Westphal.

He added that the ICRC had been in regular contact with the US about the Guantanamo detainees, but said the two sides still failed to agree on a number of issues.

“Right from the start there has been a divergence of opinion with the US on the legal status of the detainees and this is something that the president will continue to press Washington on," he added.

“We’re not asking for them to be released. If there are viable charges against them then these charges should be brought and they should be treated in a legal process which respects international humanitarian law.”

Detainees unnamed

On Monday the US Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration could keep the names of some of the Guantanamo detainees secret.

The court upheld a ruling by an appeals court that divulging the names could threaten national security and help the Islamic militant network, al-Qaeda, to plan further attacks.

Dozens of organisations, including Human Rights Watch, were involved in bringing the case to court.

While in Washington, Kellenberger is scheduled to meet the US National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In addition to Guantanamo Bay, he also plans to discuss the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Most of the approximately 660 detainees at Guantanamo Bay have been held without charge for two years.

The ICRC says this is illegal and that they are entitled to certain rights.

But the US classes the detainees as "enemy combatants", denying them the same rights as prisoners of war.

Switzerland is the depository of the Geneva Conventions, which outline rules concerning the treatment of prisoners of war.

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