Cuba says US must shut Guantanamo, hand back base

Cuba's foreign minister demanded Wednesday that Washington shut its controversial jail at Guantanamo Bay and return the long-held military base to Havana.

The comments by Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva came a day after US President Barack Obama vowed again to shut the military prison, saying it was damaging US interests.

"We are deeply concerned about the legal limbo that supports the permanent and atrocious violation of human rights at the illegal naval base in Guantanamo, a Cuba territory that was usurped by the United States, a centre of torture and deaths of prisoners who are under custody," Parrilla said.

He said 160 people had been detained in Guantanamo for 10 years, "without any guarantees, without being tried by a court or the right to legal defence".

"That prison and military base should be shut down and that territory should be returned to Cuba," he said.

Parrilla also slammed the force-feeding of more than a dozen hunger strikers who, like the bulk of the detainees in the "war on terror" lock-up, have been refusing food for weeks.

Earlier Wednesday, the UN's human rights office had said that feeding hunger strikers against their will was a breach of international law.

The hunger strike, now into its 12th week, has heightened the pressure on Washington to shut what Obama has called a legal "no man's land".

Obama said Tuesday he did not want any inmates to die and urged Congress to help him find a long-term solution that would allow for prosecuting terror suspects while shutting down Guantanamo.

The facility was set up by his predecessor George W. Bush to hold suspects captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Even before the creation of the jail, the US Navy base was a source of dispute between Havana's communist rulers and bitter rival Washington.

The United States signed a long-term lease for Guantanamo Bay after helping Cuba throw off Spanish colonial rule at the end of the 19th century.

Already strategic for Washington's Caribbean regional policy, it acquired additional importance during the Cold War after the 1959 Cuban revolution.

Since then, Cuba has pressed for its return and has refused to cash the rent which Washington pays into an escrow account.

Parrilla's comments came during a UN Human Rights Council review of Cuba's own record -- nations are required to submit to scrutiny every four years.

Parrilla underlined Cuba's successes in fields such as housing, employment, health and education, contrasting the failings in rich nations.

He also noted that a law passed in January enabled Cubans to leave the country without a permit -- controls on travel have long been spotlighted by the regime's international critics.

US ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe did not react to the remarks about Guantanamo and instead told the Council that Havana had a "wide, complex web" of measures to stifle dissent and freedom of expression.

A string of Western delegates denounced the imprisonment of political dissidents and journalists, demanding that Havana allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Cuban jails -- something not done since 1988.

Ahead of the review, Cuba's deputy chief prosecutor Rafael Pino Becquer had told reporters in Geneva there were no political detainees among the 57,000 individuals in its prisons.

According to Cuban dissidents, the number of political prisoners has fallen to around 50, from 300 in 2003.

"The Cuban government has missed a unique opportunity to make an honest assessment of its human rights record, by denying all the restrictions imposed on the press, the Internet and freedom of movement," dissident Elizardo Sanchez told reporters in Geneva.

apo-jwf/ric