LONDON (AFP) — The United States has operated more than a dozen "floating prisons" to hold and question suspected Islamist extremists as part of its so-called "war on terror", a British rights group said Monday.
Reprieve, the legal action charity, said it believed as many as 17 ships had been used to interrogate prisoners "under torturous conditions before being rendered to other, often undisclosed, locations".
The US military has previously confirmed that it has used ships to hold prisoners during its operations in Afghanistan.
Other bodies including the Council of Europe, national parliaments, the media and former prisoners, have also raised the issue, Reprieve said.
But the Pentagon denied the allegations Monday.
"There are no prison ships," spokesman Colonel Gary Keck told AFP. "There are no detention facilities on any ships. Sometimes there have been transports on ships, but not as a detention facility."
Asked what he meant by a "detention facility", Keck said that "detention is a long-term place to be".
A US defence official added that it was possible US Navy ships had been used as a temporary "holding arrangement" until combatants taken off the battlefield could be moved to more permanent locations.
"A ship would be used as a holding arrangement," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The best known case of a combatant being held on a ship is that of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" who was held aboard the USS Pelelium in late 2001, then transferred to the USS Bataan until January 2002.
Reprieve said a top Al-Qaeda suspect, Ibn Al-Shaykh Al-Libi, whose testimony was used in part to justify the war on Iraq, was also taken to the USS Bataan, which was operating in the Indian Ocean region.
The group said it would issue a full report on the use of "floating prisons" later this year.
Its director, Clive Stafford Smith, said: "The US administration chooses ships to try to keep their misconduct as far as possible from the prying eyes of the media and lawyers.
"We will eventually reunite these ghost prisoners with their human rights."
The United Nation's special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, said in June 2005 that there were "very, very serious accusations" about US prison ships acting outside international legal norms, mainly in the Indian Ocean.
But the State Department said it could not substantiate the allegations, dismissing them as rumours.
Reprieve has previously threatened to sue Britain and Portugal if they did not divulge relevant information on the secret transfer of detainees to Guantanamo.
It has also demanded an inquiry into the use of the US air base on the British-owned Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia to transfer suspected extremists.
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