SAN DIEGO – A British human rights organization claims a San Diego-based U.S. Navy ship has been used to secretly detain and interrogate terrorism suspects.The group Reprieve claims that the USS Peleliu, along with as many as 17 other U.S. Navy ships, were used as floating prisons.The group also alleges that high-profile detainees, including American-born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh, were imprisoned on the ships.Reprieve claims that the United States has used ships stationed off the Somali coast and the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia to detain suspects.
“The U.S. administration chooses ships to try to keep their misconduct as far as possible from the prying eyes of the media and lawyers,” Reprieve director Clive Stafford Smith said.
The U.S. Navy said that ships have been used to hold a small number of prisoners for short periods, but it denied that vessels were used as long-term floating prisons.
“We do not operate detention facilities on board Navy ships,” said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman. “Department of Defense detention facilities are in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.”
Reprieve said it had based its assessment on evidence from the U.S. military and the Council of Europe, and testimony from a former detainee at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It declined to publish details on its research Monday, saying it plans to issue a report on the use of prison ships later this year. Reprieve has been representing several prisoners at Guantanamo.
Stafford Smith said the organization believes about 26,000 people are being held by the U.S. in secret prisons — a figure that includes land-based detention centers.
Reprieve identified the USS Ashland, USS Bataan and USS Peleliu as among ships that have been used as prisons. Gordon said Reprieve’s claims were “inaccurate and misleading.”
However, Gordon acknowledged that Lindh, who was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 by U.S. forces, was held on board both the USS Bataan and the USS Peleliu until early 2002. He said there were fewer than 10 such detainees.
He said that Lindh — who in 2002 pleaded guilty to offenses of supplying services to the now-defunct Taliban government — and others had been detained there to allow U.S. officials secure access for interviews away from the battlefield.
Gordon did not say exactly how long they were detained aboard Navy ships, saying only that they were held for “weeks rather than months.”
British lawmaker Andrew Tyrie said he has appealed to Britain’s Information Commissioner to force the government to release minutes of military talks that could shed light on the allegations.
The Foreign Office has previously said that during a meeting with U.S officials, the Americans told the British they were not detaining prisoners on board ships off the coast of Diego Garcia, a remote British outpost that hosts a U.S. military base.