Americans hold protest near U.S. base in Cuba

Campaign News | Wednesday, 14 December 2005

Fast and prayers at Guantanamo base

HAVANA, Dec 13 - American anti-torture activists prayed and fasted for a second day near the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo in eastern Cuba on Tuesday to protest the treatment of terror suspects held there and demand access to the prisoners.

It was the first demonstration allowed by Cuba near the perimeter of the U.S. military enclave where 500 suspected members of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have been held without trial for more than three years.

Twenty-two Catholic activists of the Witness Against Torture group, including a nun and a priest, have camped out since Monday at a Cuban military checkpoint 5 miles (8 km) from the U.S. base, which is as close as Cuba allowed them to get.

They used a cellular telephone to call the military base, the U.S. Southern Command and the White House to request access to the detainees, but got no reply.

"We have a Christian president and we live in a country that is based on Christian values. He should let us in to do our mercy work," said Dana Brown, from Ithaca, New York.

"We will continue our vigil and fast until we are allowed into the base to see the prisoners and apologize to them," she told Reuters by telephone.

The protest coincided with growing international demands from politicians, human rights organizations and the Red Cross to see the Guantanamo detainees, and accusations they are being treated cruelly.

Washington says they are "unlawful enemy combatants" and not prisoners of war covered by the Geneva Convention. It insists they are being treated humanely but has refused requests by the Red Cross and others to interview them.

The American activists defied a U.S. ban on travel to Cuba and took Cuban authorities by surprise when they flew to the island last week.

Led by Frida Berrigan, daughter of Vietnam War protester Father Philip Berrigan, they marched 50 miles (80 km) in four days across eastern Cuba carrying banners that said "Stop the torture," "Free the prisoners" and "Close the naval base."

The Cuban military rarely allows civilians let alone foreigners near the 28 km (17 miles) security perimeter, a no man's land of mines and barbed wire fences surrounding the base the United States has held for a century at the entrance to Guantanamo Bay.

"We came to Cuba because this is where our government is torturing people in our name," Jacqueline Allen, a lay Catholic worker from Connecticut, said in Havana on her way home.

The U.S. government accused the activists of ignoring human rights abuses in Cuba, where it said 300 dissidents are "languishing" in jails in "horrific conditions" for their political views.

"These protesters, as they march through Cuba, are ignoring one of the most oppressive regimes in the world and its systematic and institutional violations of human rights that are the hallmark of the 46 years of Castro's dictatorship," the State Department said in a statement.


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