UN detainees 'denied rights'

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MOGADISHU - Amnesty International has a job to do here, writes Richard Dowden.

Seventy or more prisoners are being held in detention without charge, without access to lawyers or to their families and with no legal rights. Conditions are said to be grim. But they are not being held by some African dictatorship with an appalling human rights record. They are being held by the United Nations.

According to the UN there are 70 Somalis being held after successive raids since the end of June by UN forces and the United States quick-reaction force. They are being held in preventative detention pending investigation into suspicion of involvement in attacks on the UN. The UN says they are 'being treated humanely under international rules. . . '

However, the International Committee of the Red Cross had difficulty in persuading the UN to allow access to them. The Red Cross says there are 73 prisoners, not 70, and it is still trying to establish on what grounds they are being held and to secure their internationally recognised legal and familial rights. Officially they are allowed familial visits 'except for reasons of security'. But no one at the UN knows of any visits that have taken place.

Yesterday, on behalf of a Somali, I asked the provost marshal, a Bangladeshi major who is responsible for security in the UN camp, if the Somali could visit his brother and was told 'absolutely not'. Asked on what basis the detainees were being held, Farouk Mawlawi, the UN spokesman, said it was a matter for the UN legal officer. The UN legal officer, a Nigerian lawyer, has been ordered by UN headquarters in New York not to talk to the press.