ICRC still seeks access to Iraq’s prisons

Jakob Kellenberger, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said May 24 he was not optimistic about a breakthrough in talks with Iraqi officials to gain access to up to 20,000 held in the country’s prisons. “We are still in negotiation about an agreement with them,” Kellenberger told a news conference. Asked about the impasse, he replied: “I don’t think that I am expressing extreme optimism.”

The ICRC is already visiting some 16,000 people being held by US and British authorities, and 1,500 held by Kurdish authorities. “Under present conditions, it is already a huge challenge for our staff to visit more than 17,000 detainees in Iraq, because that’s almost one half of the detainee population in Iraq,” Kellenberger said.

The ICRC visited nearly 478,300 detainees in 2,577 facilities in 71 countries last year —including the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Since January 2002, ICRC officials have made 40 visits to Guantanamo, which now holds some 380 foreign inmates from 30 countries.

“I don’t want to attribute it only to the ICRC, but certainly our interventions had an effect on the improvement of conditions and treatment,” Kellenberger said of Guantanamo.

Kellenberger held talks in Washington last month with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on issues including the status of Guantanamo detainees. “There are aspects especially in the legal field where we are not yet in agreement,” he said. (Reuters, May 24)

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