SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Three human rights groups said Friday they will spurn an invitation to tour the Guantanamo Bay prison next month because it doesn't include an opportunity to speak with prisoners.
Amnesty International USA, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch all said the recent Defense Department invitation falls short of the full access to the prison at the U.S. base in Cuba that they jointly requested in a January letter to President Barack Obama.
"What is needed and is still being denied .... is full access to the detention camps, including detainees, so that we may independently review and report on the conditions of confinement there," said Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU's Human Rights Program.
A fourth group invited on the tour, Human Rights First, raised similar objections but hasn't yet decided how to respond to the invitation, which came in an Oct. 8 letter from Philip E. Carter, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee policy.
The four regularly send observers to the proceedings of the war crimes tribunals at Guantanamo but have sought to inspect the prison camps and meet with prisoners, hoping to provide the Obama administration with an outside assessment of conditions.
They were seeking far more than the standard short and superficial tours offered to journalists, lawmakers and other visitors to the U.S. base in Cuba. Instead, they wanted a role more like that of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which interviews prisoners but issues confidential reports to the government.
Carter appears to rule out more than the typical tour in his letter to the human rights groups. He offers a visit to the prison camps and medical facilities as well as the legal complex where tribunals are held, but says they will not have access to the detainees or their records.
He did not return a phone call seeking comment but says in the letter that the visit would provide a "better understanding of the conditions" at the prison, where the U.S. holds about 220 men.
"It is in everyone's interest for the detention conditions at (Guantanamo) to be as transparent as possible," Carter wrote in the letter, which the ACLU provided to The AP, "and we would welcome a visit by your organization."
Dakwar has been an observer at proceedings of the war crimes tribunals more than a dozen times but said neither he, nor anyone from the ACLU, has been inside the prison — and won't go under these conditions.
Tom Parker, a policy director for Amnesty International, said his group also sees little value in such a limited tour.
"A managed tour of the facility is a Potemkin tour and that doesn't help us understand conditions at Guantanamo," Parker said.
The Obama administration has pledged to close the prison by early next year and has said it will decide by Nov. 16 which Guantanamo prisoners will be tried in a revamped military court and which ones moved to civilian courts.