U.N. human rights experts have begun an investigation into U.S. detention facilities for terrorist suspects and allegations that there are secret prisons, one of the project leaders said Wednesday.
Manfred Nowak, the U.N.'s special expert on terrorism, said some undeclared holding areas could include U.S. Navy ships cruising extraterritorial waters. He said there were "serious" allegations to that effect from Amnesty International and other non-governmental human rights groups.
"I have heard these rumors and we have to follow them up," he told The Associated Press, urging the U.S. government to cooperate with the investigation.
Nowak, a Vienna law professor, is part of a four-member team of legal, human rights and terrorism experts appointed by the 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission, the United Nations' top rights watchdog.
The United States has criticized the commission because its members include countries with poor human rights records. But the experts operate independently and sometimes reproach their own countries for violations.
He said the commission decided last week to launch the inquiry without waiting for assurances of U.S. cooperation after holding off for more than three years in hopes Washington would give members access to Guantanamo Bay and other facilities holding terrorist suspects.
Nowak, who reports to the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission as well as the U.N. General Assembly in New York expressed disappointment at a lack of U.S. response. Still, he said, he was assured after recent high-level meetings with U.S. officials that the request to visit Guantanamo Bay was "being given highest consideration at the top level of the State Department (and) the Pentagon."
He said that the four-member team also would like to visit Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and other U.S.-run sites known to hold terrorist suspects, as well as to track down the allegations of clandestine prisons — including reports of U.S. Navy ships in extraterritorial waters in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.
Nowak said team members had begun interviewing former suspects held and subsequently released by U.S. authorities in efforts to establish conditions in the prisons and their exact locations.