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Pentagon, U.N. Disagree over Guantanamo Access

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There's a standoff between the Pentagon and United Nations human rights investigators over Guantanamo detainees. Last week, the Defense Department invited the UN to visit the base where more than 500 prisoners are being held. But the DOD made that invitation under conditions that the investigators say they cannot accept. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

It wasn't long after the Pentagon began sending suspected terrorists to Guantanamo Bay nearly four years ago that allegations of abuse and torture there began to surface. They've steadily increased over the years. Throughout that time, United Nations human rights groups have been pressing the Bush administration to allow them access to the base to investigate. In June, those groups went public, saying that their repeated requests had been ignored. Now that's changed. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the UN investigators would be given the opportunity to see that the allegations of mistreatment are false.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Department of Defense): The negotiations and discussions that have taken place with the UN folks have been to offer them an opportunity to go to Guantanamo and see for themselves. We have, however, not indicated to them, as I understand it, that they would have exactly the same opportunities that the International Committee of the Red Cross has.

NORTHAM: What that means is, unlike the Red Cross, the UN investigators will not be able to interview any of the detainees. Instead, they'll be given a tour of the base, see the kitchen where the prisoners' meals are made and talk with officials running the camp. Manfred Nowak, the UN special rapporteur on torture, says that he and the other investigators already made major concessions during the negotiations.

Mr. MANFRED NOWAK (UN Special Rapporteur on Torture): The only condition that we did not accept was that we would have no access to detainees and private interviews. We cannot--it would just not make sense to do a fact-finding mission when you can't talk to the detainees. So I think it must be very clear that we are not in a position to accept this.

NORTHAM: No access. If the military says it has nothing to hide, then there shouldn't be any problem in allowing investigators to talk with the prisoners. Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, says the Pentagon may think it's made a huge concession by allowing UN investigators to go to Guantanamo, but it can't expect the UN to bend its rules.

Mr. TOM MALINOWSKI (Human Rights Watch): The UN wouldn't accept a decision by the Chinese government, for example, to restrict the visit of a UN investigator in this way. It wouldn't accept such a decision from the government of Sudan or Vietnam or Burma, and it's certainly not going to lower its standards for the United States.

NORTHAM: The special investigators say they hope the Pentagon will still reverse its decision and let them talk to the detainees. But Rumsfeld gave no indication of that happening during a press conference on Tuesday. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.