Saying that U.S. treatment of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners held in Cuba violates international law, a group of civil-rights lawyers is asking a fact-finding body of the Organization of American States to intervene.
In a petition expected to be filed today, the activists want the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to tell the U.S. to identify its 300 detainees at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, provide them with lawyers and suspend their interrogations, at least until the commission inspects conditions there.
A State Department spokeswoman said the government hadn’t seen the petition and couldn’t comment on it.
Established in 1960 and based in Washington, the body’s seven commissioners are appointed by the OAS General Assembly and include one U.S. member. The panel can’t compel the MS. to obey its decisions, and the U.S. government regularly has ignored previous requests to stay executions of state and federal prisoners.
But with world-wide attention focusing on Camp X-Ray—the temporary prison where the U.S. is holding men it says are dangerous perpetrators of international terrorism—a decision against the Bush administration would be embarrassing. It also might give wavering allies a rationale to distance themselves from the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
“I have no sympathy for the people who were in the Taliban, but I feel people have to be treated humanely no matter who they are,” said Michael Ratner, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York who helped draft the petition.
The U.S. has classified its detainees as “unlawful combatants” rather than criminal suspects or prisoners of war, who would have additional rights under the U.S. Constitution or the Geneva Conventions. As a result, U.S. officials have said they can interrogate the detainees without giving them access to lawyers and don’t have to explain what charges or penalties they might face or how long they will be jailed. Many detainees eventually may face trial by a U.S. military commission or civil court, or extradition, officials have said.
The petition alleges that these actions violate the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, a 1948 OAS statement of principles, as well as the Geneva Conventions, an international treaty governing the conduct of war that addresses the treatment of civilians, casualties and prisoners.
The petition says the U.S. is violating the American Declaration’s requirement that prisoners are entitled to a court decision on their detention “without delay” and to trial under “procedures established by pre-existing law.” It asks that the detainees be presumed to be POWs until a board reviews each case and finds otherwise. That is also the position of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors compliance with the Geneva Conventions and has visited detainees at Guantanamo.