GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States has become far more transparent about the prisoners it is holding in Iraq and Afghanistan, a marked improvement since the dark days of Abu Ghraib, a top Red Cross official said on Friday.
Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said the agency was satisfied with its confidential talks with U.S. officials related to the sensitive issues of detention and accountability.
The ICRC is the only outside group with regular access to security detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. It conducts private interviews and monitors conditions in internment, screening and transit facilities.
“Since the summer of 2009 we are notified of any person held by the U.S., by the Department of Defense, wherever it is in Afghanistan or Iraq within a maximum of 14 days,” Kraehenbuehl told Reuters in an hour-long interview in his office.
ICRC officials are visiting 240 detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq, all at Baghdad’s Camp Cropper, and 1,500 in Afghanistan.
“Those steps we consider as very positive in terms of added transparency that has come. In that sense we are satisfied with the relationship we have with the Department of Defense on the access questions, and also on the type of dialogue that we have on recommendations,” Kraehenbuehl said.
The Swiss, who held talks with senior Obama administration officials in Washington last month, said his comments also covered issues related to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, in southeastern Cuba, where 173 terrorism suspects are still held.
The ICRC sends its confidential findings and recommendations only to the detaining authorities concerned — a bargain it makes worldwide in exchange for access to detainees.
Kraehenbuehl, asked whether there may still be secret detention centers run by U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, said the ICRC can never be entirely sure it is seeing every prisoner held in any armed conflict.
But he strongly signaled that the neutral humanitarian agency had no major suspicions.
“What the ICRC feels when we speak about transparency is they have put in place procedures of transparency toward us and accountability on their side that we think are good now.”
Kraehenbuehl spoke after a week-long trip to Iraq, the ICRC’s second largest operation worldwide, where it deploys 700 staff who work without armed escort, although five colleagues were killed there between 2003 and 2005.
He hoped Iraq’s government would soon agree to give the ICRC access to all its detention centers. An accord proposed by the ICRC in 2008 awaits a decision by Iraq’s council of ministers, he said.
Amnesty International voiced concern last year at the U.S. release of several thousand Iraqi prisoners into Iraqi custody despite documented evidence that Iraqi security forces have abused detainees.
The ICRC currently has access to 35 places of detention run by central Iraqi authorities and has visited 30,000 inmates. As well as monitoring conditions, the agency facilitates detainees’ contacts with their families and often with lawyers.
“That’s why we’re hoping that we can finalize the agreement, so we have the strongest possible case to approach authorities ... to have access to the other places, providing security allows it, that we still don’t have access to yet in Iraq,” he said.
The Los Angeles Times reported this week that an elite security force linked to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office is holding detainees in miserable conditions without access to lawyers or families, despite his pledge to rein in the unit.
It identified the center, at a sprawling Defence Ministry compound in Baghdad, as Camp Honor.
Kraehenbuehl said the ICRC had sought access to a number of detention sites in Iraq, including some where it halted visits as its strict requirements were not met. These include interviewing inmates without witnesses and making repeat visits.
“We have not yet had access to that place according to the full range of our traditional modalities,” he said of Camp Honor, noting it had various names.
The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal caused worldwide outrage in 2004 after photos emerged showing U.S. troops mistreating Iraqi inmates at the prison on the western outskirts of Baghdad.
More recently, WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 classified U.S. files on the Iraq war, some detailing gruesome cases of prisoner abuse by Iraqi forces that the U.S. military knew about but did not seem to have investigated.
“Even when the ICRC has access to places of detention, that is still no guarantee, it is not an indication that everything is fine in the place of detention,” Kraehenbuehl said.
“It is important to understand that our work is not just a one-off visit, it has to be repeated so that we build and contribute to improvements over time,” he said.
Editing by Laura MacInnis and Tim Pearce