It was over three years ago that the UN first asked American officials for an invitation to assess the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the US-run prison where alleged terrorists are being held without any formal charge. The UN's intentions were to examine all aspects of the prison camp by sending three experts, one on religious freedom, one on arbitrary detention and one on torture, to interview guards, medical staff, and, of course, the prisoners themselves.
A few foundational facts about the base are needed in order to digest the magnitude of the information that follows. The US strategically set up the naval base in Cuba, which it has leased from the Cuban government since the early 1900s, because it allows for ambiguous "ownership" of the base. The naval base has token American amenities like a McDonalds and a Subway, with the prison tucked away in one remote corner inside very tight security. The US says Cuba ultimately has control of the property, that prisoners are not on American soil and therefore are not protected by US laws. Human rights watchdogs say the opposite, that the naval base is US territory and therefore the prisoners should be granted the same rights as anyone held under US law. While it's true prisoners have had contact with The Red Cross, they are not allowed to release any sort of complaints.
In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that the prison camp was within US jurisdiction and the prisoners were entitled to appeal their status. However, this procedure involves review hearings before a panel of US military officers, still without access to a lawyer or classified information involving their status and case.
Now the US has generously opened their arms to the UN, inviting them to come and have a look. The one stipulation however, is that UN officials are not to have access to any of the prisoners. No interviews, no photos, nothing. This obviously inhibits the "fact-finding mission" the UN is intent on, so they turned down the opportunity saying that the only way they will come is with full access to the prisoners. One of the main motivations for the UN's visit at this particular time is that over half of the 540 prisoners have participated in a hunger strike since July in quiet protest over their conditions. This has kicked up a whole new realm of allegations about US torture methods including, but not exclusive to force-feeding at least 24 prisoners with unsanitized tubes shoved through their noses, alleged beatings and the desecration of the Koran. Donald Rumsfeld, however, insightfully points out that the prisoners are going on a rotational "diet" in order to attract media attention. Gee thanks, Donald.
The story gets worse. Last week, the Washington Post ran a story claiming the CIA has secret prisons, more commonly called "dark sites" throughout Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. These "dark sites" are used as temporary jails, keeping the most dangerous prisoners underground, in the dark, in limbo, before they are transferred to Guantanamo Bay. While all of the leaders of the countries in question have denied the existence of the prisons, Dick Cheney's recent actions brings the legitimacy of the denials into question.
Mr. Cheney is lobbying the House for the US to allow an exception for using torture in CIA counter-terrorism operations for prisoners held in US-run prisons situated abroad. This would allow for torture to be used arbitrarily. While the Senate has strongly agreed with Senator John McCain that torture under any circumstance is unacceptable, Mr. Cheney finds that there are certain situations where torture is appropriate. If he succeeds in convincing the House to make an exception for the CIA, this might potentially mean that in the wake of Abu Ghraib, torture practices could become legal at the discretion of CIA operatives. This is more than a bit chilling.