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World - AP Europe
Human Rights Chief Discusses Prisoners
Thu Mar 13, 7:42 PM ET

By JONATHAN FOWLER, Associated Press Writer

GENEVA - The U.N. human rights chief accused the United States on Thursday of keeping 650 imprisoned terror suspects in a "legal black hole" by denying them hearings in American courts.


Sergio Vieira de Mello specifically condemned a U.S. court ruling Tuesday that suspected Taliban and al-Qaida fighters held at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have no rights to such hearings.

The court said the prisoners are aliens being held outside U.S. sovereign territory and, therefore, are not entitled to such constitutional rights as being charged with a crime or having access to a lawyer.

"I cannot accept that there's a legal black hole in Guantanamo," Vieira de Mello said. "How can we even conceive that on this planet there exist square kilometers of land where no law applies?"

Attorneys representing the families of some prisoners argued that the military base is under the control of the United States and the detainees have legal rights under international law.

They claim U.S. authorities unfairly are holding the men indefinitely without charge, leaving them in legal limbo.

The United States also has been criticized by human rights groups and several governments for refusing to grant the Guantanamo detainees prisoner of war status, even though most were captured in a military campaign. U.S. authorities instead label the prisoners enemy combatants.

"You can roll out as many legal quibbles as you want," Vieira de Mello said.

"If you control a territory, if you have a military force on this territory, if you have a detention center on this territory, if you hold around 650 people on this territory, then you can't say that the law of the country that controls this territory doesn't apply."

The Guantanamo base is a 45-square mile area in eastern Cuba.

U.S. troops seized Guantanamo Bay in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Since a 1903 agreement, the United States has leased the land from Cuba for 2,000 gold coins a year, now valued at $4,085. The U.S. government still pays, but the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro (news - web sites) opposes the U.S. presence and refuses to cash the checks.

Vieira de Mello previously has urged U.S. authorities to bring the prisoners to trial or hand them over to justice authorities in their home countries. He discussed the issue during a meeting last week with President Bush (news - web sites) in Washington.

"The United States should be an example," Vieira de Mello said Thursday. "I told the president that we turn to the United States as a model, a model of democracy that invented the expression 'civil liberties.'"

"I recognize fully that terrorism is an insidious threat," Vieira de Mello said.

Governments have a duty to fight terrorism but must ensure they protect human rights during the battle, he said.

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