afrol News, 1 December - The International Red Cross office in Tunis confirms the existence of several "non-notified" secret prisons in Tunisia. Diplomats say Tunisian assurances they do not practice torture are "crap" and "bullshit".
This is revealed in two cables from the US embassy in Tunis, published by WikiLeaks today. The embassy reports from June 2009, classified as "secret", treat the possible return of Tunisian Guantánamo prisoners, as desired by the Obama administration. Washington wants to know whether they risk torture upon return to Tunisia, which would necessitate their return to a third country.
Several human rights groups have described the existence of torture and secret prison facilities in Tunisia, and US Ambassador Robert Godec last year tried to get first-hand information from Yves Arnoldy, the International Red Cross Committee Regional (ICRC) delegate. The ICRC is the only organisation with access to prisoners, but follows a strict confidentiality policy needed to maintain confidence with the host nation.
Mr Arnoldy, in Ambassador Godec's words, however was able to give the US Embassy some "cryptic" comments about the situation of prisoners in Tunisia.
During the June 2009 conversations, Mr Arnoldy confirmed that the Tunis Ministry of Justice, which controls most ordinary prison facilities in Tunisia, cooperates well with the Red Cross. Mr Arnoldy was allowed to inspect the Ministry's prison facilities.
But it was also confirmed that the Tunis Ministry of the Interior runs several prison facilities. Some of these had been reported to the Red Cross, but there also existed several secret "non-notified facilities" run by that Ministry.
Mr Arnoldy went far in confirming that cooperation between the Red Cross and the Tunis Ministry of the Interior was poor. He could confirm that there were several prison facilities in Tunisia where Red Cross workers never had been given access.
The Red Cross delegate would not answer the Ambassador's questions about prisoners' conditions and the use of torture in Tunisia, in line with the ICRC confidentiality policy. Asked about "the reliability of information on treatment of prisoners provided by NGOs and others without direct access to the prisoners," Mr Arnoldy therefore only gave vague answers.
Mr Arnoldy was quoted as saying that it was "difficult for NGOs and others to know exactly what is happening and third hand sourcing has its problems. Not everything they say is accurate, but it is a source of information." The groups often would give him tips that he could follow-up on "and sometimes they do have good sources, especially through contact with prisoners' families."
Ambassador Godec, a week later, also discussed the suspected use of torture and secret detentions with other Western diplomats in Tunis. The discussion came in response to a Tunisian request to several embassies, including Germany, Italy and Spain, "not agree to the US request to accept Tunisian detainees" from Guantánamo.
Tunisian Secretary of State for Maghreb, Arab and African Affairs, Abdelhafidh Hergeum, had told the Western diplomats that his country wanted the Guantánamo prisoners returned home. "Tunisia does not torture," Mr Hergeum had told the ambassadors, adding that "Tunisia's image would suffer if the detainees were sent to other countries."
During the meeting, only the Italian Ambassador placed some trust in the Tunisian guarantees. Totally disagreeing were the Canadian and German ambassadors, holding that "anyone in Tunisian prisons on terrorism charges is at risk of mistreatment or torture." The British Ambassador even opined that "the government of Tunisia uses torture as a form of punishment."
Canadian Ambassador Bruno Picard several times during the conversation made it clear he placed no trust in the Tunisian government. Commenting on Tunisian "evidence" that an earlier prisoner repatriated from Canada to Tunis had not been mistreated, Ambassador Picard called the comparison "crap", as the prisoner had been "a petty criminal and not accused of terrorism."
The Canadian Ambassador further said the Tunisian government statements that it does not torture were "bullshit." Ambassador Picard added that he had "direct, first hand evidence of torture/mistreatment of a prisoner that lasted several months," according to the US embassy document.
In conclusion, US Ambassador Godec advised Washington to seek special guarantees from Tunisian authorities for possible Guantánamo returnees. "Whether the government of Tunisia would accept such an arrangement is another matter. We are not optimistic, but it is worth considering," Mr Godec writes.
According to unconfirmed reports, most of the 11 Tunisian Guantánamo prisoners remain in US custody. None reportedly have been returned to Tunisia after the June 2009 embassy reports, while Italy and Albania reportedly have received Tunisian returnees.
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