ICRC warned US about Iraqi prisoner abuse

Images of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison have caused outrage Keystone

The Swiss-run International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it has repeatedly asked the United States to take action over allegations of Iraqi prisoner abuse.

This content was published on May 6, 2004 minutes

On Thursday the ICRC said it first informed the US authorities several months ago about the handling of inmates inside Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

"The ICRC is aware of the situation in Abu Ghraib and based on... its interviews with prisoners, it has repeatedly made requests to the US authorities to take corrective action," said ICRC chief spokeswoman, Antonella Notari.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger on Thursday to assure him that the US government was dealing with the reported abuse of Iraqi detainees.

The Geneva-based agency, which visits prisoners held by coalition authorities in Iraq, has until now refused to comment publicly on conditions inside the prison.

When asked why the ICRC did not publicise the allegations of abuse when they first emerged, Notari told swissinfo that such a step would have compromised the humanitarian organisation's neutrality.

"The ICRC is active in over 70 countries worldwide and we visit more than 460 detainees. If we were to make public what we discuss with prisoners and what we see in prisons, we would no longer be granted access [to them]," Notari said.

"And that is important to us - to be present and to be able to act on the spot."

Prison visits

The ICRC said it submitted a thorough report to US officials in November after its first full-scale check of the prison last October.

Visits have taken place every five or six weeks since last year. The latest was on March 20.

"[We have] been granted unimpeded access to all detainees and all sections of the prison since it was used by US forces last year," Notari said.

The scandal over treatment of prisoners began when a US television network broadcast pictures of smiling American guards with Iraqi prisoners in humiliating positions.

The images - as well as photographs published in the media around the world - sparked a huge international outcry.

But ICRC officials noted that the US had taken steps against some of the people allegedly involved in the abuse of prisoners.

"I think the US has taken our reports seriously and I am sure it has drawn attention to the current problems," Notari said.

Geneva Conventions

The ICRC is designated by the Geneva Conventions to visit prisoners of war and other people detained by an occupying power.

It traditionally discusses its observations only with the detaining authority, but has been under pressure to say whether it had specifically warned the United States about prisoner abuse before the photographs came to light.

The ICRC has broken its vow of silence on only a few occasions in the past.

One such example involved Israeli treatment of detained Palestinians some 20 years ago when the ICRC went public with its criticism.

More recently, the organisation has expressed concerns about the conditions and treatment of Afghan and other detainees at the US naval base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The neutral, Swiss-run International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was established in 1863 as the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded.
It has since helped millions of prisoners of war and victims of conflict by providing humanitarian aid, tracing missing persons and helping PoWs contact their families.
The ICRC is designated by the Geneva Conventions to visit PoWs detained by an occupying power.
Switzerland is the depository of the Geneva Conventions, which outline rules concerning the treatment of prisoners of war.
The United States is the ICRC's largest financial contributor, donating around SFr200 million ($155 million) each year.

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