The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed Thursday that its representatives have met with the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and 13 other terrorist suspects who were transferred to U.S. military custody in September after years in secret CIA detention facilities.
The meetings took place at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno said. He said the Red Cross had provided the men with forms for letters, but declined to say which, if any, had written to their families.
Schorno also declined to discuss what was learned about the men's treatment while they were held by the CIA. Under tradition, the Red Cross reports its findings about a prisoner's treatment only to the country holding the prisoner.
Confirmation that the 14 men had been seen by Red Cross delegates came on the same day that the Pentagon announced it had released 17 Guantanamo prisoners. Sixteen were sent to Afghanistan and one to Morocco, the Pentagon said.
It didn't name the men, but said they'd been freed after a series of internal reviews and diplomatic dialogue with their native countries.
The releases leave 437 prisoners at Guantanamo.
President Bush announced Sept. 6 that the 14 men had been held at secret offshore CIA detention facilities and said they'd been transferred to Guantanamo Bay to await eventual trials before a military court for suspected terrorist activities.
Until then the U.S. hadn't acknowledged holding the men who, in addition to their alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, also are suspects in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and the bombings in 1998 of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Some of the men had been held for as long as four years by the CIA. Bush said some had been subjected to harsh interrogation procedures. But Schorno wouldn't comment on whether the Red Cross had observed signs that the men had been tortured.
"The ICRC does not comment publicly on current or past circumstances of detention or treatment of detainees," he said.
Schorno said the meetings included a doctor and translators and weren't monitored by the military.
"We have seen the 14 as of today," Schorno said by telephone from Washington. "We're confirming having visited and registered the 14 detainees, and provided them with the means to exchange Red Cross messages with their families."
At Guantanamo, Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand released a statement calling the Red Cross consultations "meaningful, useful and confidential"—meaning he wouldn't spell out any criticisms, if any, that the international relief agency made of the captives' conditions.
"As with all other detainees, they receive adequate food, shelter and clothing. They are afforded the opportunity to worship and have access to the Quran in their native language and other prayer accessories," Durand said in a statement.
"Consistent with established policies, they are allowed to send and receive mail."
Red Cross officials arrived on the remote base in southeast Cuba about two weeks ago, after Army Gen. Bantz Craddock, head of the Southern Command, which oversees the prison, said the former CIA-held captives were undergoing a month-long orientation.
Still unclear is when the men might face a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, which is held to certify enemy combatant status.
Previous reviews have been open to reporters, providing the possibility that the public soon would glimpse alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh and others accused of involvement in recent terror attacks. Senior Defense and Justice Department officials earlier had said reviews would be held within three months of the men's arrival. That means they should be completed by Christmas.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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