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U.N. torture sleuth says Cuba blocked visit

GENEVA (Reuters) - Cuba has told the United Nations special investigator on torture that he cannot visit the island on a fact-finding mission although an invitation was issued to him last year, the official said on Wednesday.

United Nations special investigator on torture Manfred Nowak speaks during a news conference in Amman June 29, 2006. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

Austrian lawyer Manfred Nowak, known for his frank talking to both developed and developing countries on the issue, said in a statement Havana had told him it could not receive him before his mandate runs out at the end of October this year.

“I regret that, in spite of its clear invitation, the government of Cuba has not allowed me to objectively assess the situation of torture and ill-treatment in the country by collecting first-hand evidence from all available sources,” he declared.

But in a response from its diplomatic mission in Geneva, Cuba said the invitation remained in force, although it needed no assessment of the rights situation in the country.

“There has not been one case of extra-judicial execution or of forced disappearance in Cuba,” a statement said. “Few countries can boast of the results achieved in Cuba in the treatment of people in prison and their full reinsertion into society.”

Nowak said Cuba invited him in February 2009 to make a visit but since then had failed to agree on a date.

Nowak has been six years in his post, formally titled special rapporteur to the U.N.’s Geneva-based Human Rights Council, and has already made clear he will step down when his mandate is over.

Diplomats at the council -- now holding a three-week session -- said Havana was showing special sensitivity over its jailing of dissidents, one of whom died in prison in February. Cuba says it has no political prisoners and jails only criminals.

Earlier this year, Nowak told reporters he had been frustrated by the lack of cooperation he had received in his investigations from many governments -- including some, like communist-ruled Cuba, who are members of the 47-nation council.

Another investigator, Australian lawyer Philip Alston, said last week that the council -- where a developing country bloc that shields its members from criticism holds a clear majority -- was ignoring killings in countries like Iran and Sri Lanka.

Alston, who reports on extra-judicial executions and has just authored a report strongly critical of U.S. unmanned rocket attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, said the council had a single-minded focus on Israel.

Nowak, who also angered the former U.S. administration of George W. Bush with criticism of conditions at the Guantanamo detention center on Cuba, has also made no secret of his disillusion with the council itself.

Editing by Mark Trevelyan