US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused UN experts access to detainees at a military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dismissing a hunger strike there as a publicity stunt.
The Pentagon last week invited three UN human rights experts to "observe" operations at the Guantanamo detention center but the officials have said they will go only if they are allowed to interview prisoners privately.
In rejecting that, Rumsfeld said the International Committee of the Red Cross already has "complete and total access."
The International Committee of the Red Cross as a matter of policy does not make its findings public in order to preserve its access to prisons that might otherwise be closed to them....The UN special rapporteurs, on the other hand, would be expected to report what they see or hear while visiting Guantanamo.
"And so we're not inclined to add the number of people that would be given that extensive access," he told reporters at a Pentagon press conference.
The ICRC as a matter of policy does not make its findings public in order to preserve its access to prisons that might otherwise be closed to them.
The UN special rapporteurs, on the other hand, would be expected to report what they see or hear while visiting Guantanamo.
The Pentagon's invitation last week came in the midst of a three-month-old hunger strike that defense lawyers say has involved as many as 200 detainees in protest over their indefinite detentions.
"I suppose that what they're trying to do is to capture press attention, obviously, and they've succeeded," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld said giving the UN special rapporteurs access to the detainees would not set to rest concerns about their treatment.
"It's very much in some people's interest to have it not be at rest," he said.
He said the decision to bar access to detainees was not taken by the Defense Department but by the US government as a whole.
Lawyers for the detainees, meanwhile, staged a fast outside the Justice Department to protest conditions in which their clients are being held.
A federal judge last week ordered the Pentagon to notify their lawyers when detainees have been force fed and to give them access to medical records at least once a week until the force feeding stops.
Currently, 27 detainees are refusing food and 24 are being fed through tubes, Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Martin, a military spokesman at Guantanamo, told AFP.
"They are clinically stable, and they are being monitored. They walk around, take showers, they have access to the ICRC," he said. "They are being tube fed but none of the detainees are in restraints to receive the feedings."
He said the strike, which began August 8, peaked on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States when 131 inmates refused food.
Rumsfeld said he neither approved nor disapproved of commanders' decisions to force-feed hunger-striking inmates.
The army, which runs the prison, has "expert medical people who make decisions of that type," he said.
"And they've made a decision that they think it's appropriate for them to provide nourishment to people who, for whatever reason, at various points in their detention, decide they want to not provide normal nourishment to themselves," he said.
The Washington Post on Tuesday reported that a detainee, Jumah al-Dossari of Bahrain, tried to hang himself in a bathroom during a visit by his lawyer on October 15.
The lawyer, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, was believed to be the first outsider to witness a suicide attempt at the prison, which houses more than 500 war-on-terror suspects.
Since December 2002, 36 suicide attempts have been reported at the prison, including three in the past year, Martin said. He would not comment on any individual cases.
© AFP 2005