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U.S. delegate protests Cuba's human rights seat

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UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- The United States walked out of a U.N. vote Tuesday to elect new members to the Commission on Human Rights to protest Cuba's re-election to the 53-member group.

"Having Cuba serve again on the Human Rights Commission is like putting Al Capone in charge of bank security," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "It is an inappropriate action that does not serve the cause of human rights in Cuba or at the United Nations."

The commission meets annually for six weeks in Geneva, Switzerland, to examine reports of human rights abuses around the world.

Sichan Siv, U.S. delegate to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, which held the election, told reporters, "It was an outrage for us because we view Cuba as the worst violator of human rights in this hemisphere. While the commission was sitting in Geneva, the Cuban authority rounded up 78 opposition leaders, journalists and librarians, put them into jail and sentenced them to up to 20 years."

The U.S. relationship with the commission has grown increasingly contentious during the past few years.

The United States lost its seat on the panel in 2001, which marked the first time Washington had not served since the commission's inception in 1947. Although the United States was voted off the panel, Sudan, Libya and Cuba were represented.

In April 2002, Spain and Italy withdrew their candidacies for the commission to allow the United States to regain its seat.

The election of Cuba had been expected and was unopposed as part of a slate of uncontested candidates from the Latin American regional group.

In a written statement, the United States also said Cuba's nomination to the Commission on Human Rights "symbolizes the commission's regrettable decline in international prestige, relevance and authority."

Libya holds the one-year chairmanship of the human rights committee. According to Human Rights Watch, political opponents in Libya are subject to abduction and assassination, torture, and detention without charge or trial.

-- CNN producer Liz Neisloss contributed to this report.

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