Global Policy Forum

ICRC Still Seeking Access to Iraqi-Run Prisons


By Stephanie Nebehay

May 24, 2007

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday he was not optimistic about a breakthrough in talks with Iraqi officials to gain access to up to 20,000 people held in Iraqi-run prisons. The neutral humanitarian agency is already visiting some 17,500 people in Iraq who are detained either by American, Kurdish or British authorities, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said.

The ICRC announced six months ago that it was close to an agreement with Iraqi authorities to allow its officials to visit inmates at Iraqi detention centres, where Sunnis have alleged inmates are tortured, but talks have dragged on. "We are still in negotiation about an agreement with them. It is the modalities of our visits which we have to negotiate with them," Kellenberger told a news conference.

Asked about the impasse, he replied: "I don't think that I am expressing extreme optimism." There was no timeline for concluding a deal over access to Iraqi-held detainees who number "between 18,000 and 20,000", according to the former Swiss diplomat. "Once we have the agreement it is quite clear that for security reasons, there may be places where we cannot go or where for a certain time we cannot go," Kellenberger added.

The ICRC has "strict" rules, requiring governments to allow it to interview detainees in private and make follow-up visits, he said. Its confidential reports on conditions and treatment are sent only to the detaining 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.

Some 16,000 detainees are in American hands, while another 1,500 are held by local Kurdish authorities in the semi-autonomous regions of the north, and a small number are held by British forces, according to the ICRC chief. The ICRC budget in Iraq this year is 91 million Swiss francs ($74.10 million), its second largest operation after Sudan.


The ICRC visited nearly 478,300 detainees in 2,577 places of detention in 71 countries last year -- including the U.S. jail at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Since January 2002, ICRC officials have made 40 visits to the Guantanamo military prison, which now holds some 380 foreign inmates from 30 countries, according to the ICRC. "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.

The ICRC chief held talks in Washington last month with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on issues including the status of Guantanamo detainees and the legal process. "There are aspects especially in the legal field where we are not yet in agreement," he said on Thursday.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Torture and Prison Abuse in Iraq


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