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UN rights expert to visit Guantanamo detention facility for first time

UN special rapporteur Fionnuala Ni Aolain will visit the detention centre this month and will also meet with former detainees
There are currently 35 detainees who remain detained at Guantanamo.
There are currently 35 detainees who remain detained at Guantanamo (Reuters/File photo)

The United Nations announced on Wednesday that one of its rights experts will visit the Guantanamo Bay detention centre this month, in what will be the first "technical visit" after two decades of requests.

Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN special rapporteur on protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, will undertake a visit to Washington next week, and from there will head to Guantanamo.

A UN expert visited Guantanamo in 2007, at the invitation of the US, but only to attend an evidentiary hearing at the military commissions tribunal.

"Between February 6 and 14, the independent expert will visit Washington and subsequently the detention facility at the US naval station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," the UN said in a statement.

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Ni Aolain, who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council but is unpaid and does not speak for the international body, will issue a statement on her findings and recommendations following the visit.

In the following three months, Ni Aolain "will also carry out a series of interviews with individuals in the United States and abroad, on a voluntary basis, including victims and families of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and former detainees in countries of resettlement/repatriation", the statement said.

In March 2022, Ni Aolain announced she had received a "preliminary invitation" from Washington to visit Guantanamo, explaining that the parameters for the trip were still under discussion.

The UN expert has been critical of counter-extremism policies around the world, particularly in the US and UK, and said in a 2020 report that these policies have violated the rights of minorities, religious groups, and civil society advocates.

The announcement of the visit was welcomed by rights groups, who called on her to take a particular look at the medical condition of the detainees currently there.

Last week, Middle East Eye reported that one of the detainees, Ammar al-Baluchi, was found to have a small tumour on his spine.

"UN Special Procedures are critical to holding the US accountable to its international human rights obligations generally, and with respect to Guantanamo specifically," Scott Roehm, director of the Center for Victims of Torture, said in a statement.

"It will be important for the Special Rapporteur to assess, in particular, detainees’ conditions of confinement and access to appropriate medical care—including how those issues intersect with the military commission system—given the widespread prevalence of torture and trauma among the men who remain captive at Guantanamo."

'Site of unparalleled notoriety'

Former Guantanamo detainees and defence lawyers have expressed concerns for the prison's ageing population, and multiple Covid-19 outbreaks in the prison have caused grave concerns for the health and safety of the prisoners.

The prison was opened in 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent US-led "war on terror". By 2003, it was holding 700 detainees. Since then, hundreds were released and transferred out of the prison without ever being charged with a crime.

'It should never have taken two decades'

- Hina Shamsi, ACLU

There are 35 detainees who remain at the facility, with 20 eligible for transfer and nine facing charges in a military tribunal.

US President Joe Biden is under pressure to clear out uncharged prisoners at Guantanamo and move ahead with the trials of those accused of having direct ties to al-Qaeda.

​​"We commend the Biden administration for agreeing to let a UN human rights expert visit Guantanamo, finally ending a shameful US government moratorium that sought to establish a prison outside the reach of law," Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national security project, said in a statement.

"It should never have taken two decades, but we're encouraged to see the basic principle of UN rights officials independent access to all sites of detention and detainees respected at long last by our country."

UN experts have been critical of the American detention centre, saying that it has been an enduring symbol of human rights violations over the past two decades.

"Guantanamo Bay is a site of unparalleled notoriety, defined by the systematic use of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against hundreds of men brought to the site and deprived of their most fundamental rights," UN experts appointed by the Human Rights Council said last month.

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