Amid the grimness, a sense of change

The sprawling prison complex at Guantánamo Bay looks from a distance like many of the hastily built resorts round the Caribbean, the camps occupying a narrow strip of sand by the palm-lined sea-shore, with fencing to keep the locals out.

But through the military checkpoint, the grimness of the world’s most infamous prison becomes apparent: barbed wire and watchtowers and heavy nylon matting hiding it from outside eyes.

Once inside it becomes grimmer still. Prisoners at Camp Six, where there are maximum security cells, are isolated for 22 hours a day, allowed into a small courtyard for two hours to exercise. Confrontations with guards and beatings are commonplace. Many have been tortured, if not at the camp, then before they arrived. About 10 are on hunger strike. Two have been force-fed for more than 800 days.

At Camp Six military guards, working in strict rotation, peer through peepholes at least once a minute. A prisoner, briefly glimpsed, is bedraggled, only a tiny glimmer of curiosity in his eyes at a break in the routine brought about by the presence of a handful of journalists.

A senior US medical officer at the camps, who preferred not to be named, admitted that about 10% to 15% of the prisoners were receiving treatment for medical or psychological problems, but insisted this was comparable to prisons on the US mainland.

Reporters are not allowed to speak to prisoners but lawyers can, and they regard conditions at Guantánamo as much worse than anywhere else in the US prison system. One of the lawyers, Wells Dixon, from the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, said he had been going to the camps for years and had seen a marked deterioration in prisoners’ health. ”Camp Six was set up to destroy them physically and mentally, and it worked,” he said.

Almost seven years since the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan and five years since the occupation of Iraq, there are still 275 detainees at Guantánamo (down from a high of 775), held without trial. They have come from a wide arc stretching from North Africa through the Middle East to the Muslim regions of western China.

Rear Admiral Mark Buzby, commander in charge of the Guantánamo camps, inside the US naval base on the eastern end of Cuba, said in an interview that his conscience was clear. ”I have to get up every morning and look in the mirror and believe that I am doing something that is morally and legally correct. And believe me I can do that every single morning.”

Buzby claimed that many of the inmates, if not detained, ”would be very actively engaged in jihad and would be doing their very best to take American and coalition lives. And the reason I know this is because they are very happy to tell us that every single day.”

Lawyers questioned whether it was possible to hold a fair trial, given that some of the evidence that might be used against the prisoners had been obtained by torture. Buzby said it would be for the judge to decide whether the evidence was admissible. In contrast with the torture used in secret CIA detention centres round the world, Buzby said his preference was for interrogators building a rapport with detainees and offering incentives. ”We use the Subway sandwich and the Big Mac.”

Asked whether he regarded waterboarding — which simulates drowning and was used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-declared mastermind of 9/11 — as torture, he admitted: ”I would certainly not want it done to me.”

The prisoners react in various ways to indefinite confinement. Some are compliant, and these are mainly held in Camp Four, where they are free to wander round a small compound and chat to other inmates, can attend classes in English and have access to a library, in which one of the most read books, according to the librarian, is the latest Harry Potter in English.

Confrontation common

But confrontation is never far away. One of the guards at Camp Six, Patrick Zintel, told of how the prisoners retaliate. ”They pile faeces by the door and when a guard comes in, they will throw it at them,” he said. Such incidents are common enough for the US to put an eye-wash dispenser outside the cells.

Another guard, Chris Cookson, said that such incidents also occurred in the camps where the inmates are supposedly compliant. ”I came out of an office and a cocktail of water, urine and faeces came out of nowhere and splattered the person in front,” he said.

The guards retaliate heavily. Clive Stafford Smith, the London-based lawyer for some of the inmates and author of Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side, which recounts the experiences of the prisoners, said he had seen the scars from such beatings. ”Sadly, the emergency reaction force [a five-strong team of guards] still responds to minor infringements by beating them up.”

There is a sense of uncertainty about Guantánamo. Although the Bush administration promised that the first of the trials at Guantánamo will finally begin this year, guards and lawyers are unsure how much longer the camps will exist. All the leading candidates in the US presidential race –the two Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the Republican John McCain — have promised to close Guantánamo on entering the White House on January 20 next year.

Stafford Smith predicted that Guantánamo will close rapidly and welcomed the prospect because the prisoners are likely to be moved to the US mainland where they will be subject to US law.

Defence lawyers divide the detainees into three categories. The first are those like Mohammed who could go on trial. Buzby said he expected about 80 to go on trial. Of the remainder, 80 have already been cleared for release but cannot find a country that will take them. The others are awaiting clearance.


The defence department said earlier this month that Mohammed, who is held at Camp Seven, a CIA camp whose existence was only revealed this year, and five others are to be tried on charges that carry the death penalty.

Yet another camp has been built for Mohammed’s trial. Camp Justice, begun in September and completed at the start of this month, consists of a windowless courthouse, holding cells and tents for 550 officials, lawyers and journalists.

Shayana Kadidal, another lawyer with the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which has more clients at Guantánamo than anyone else, said he thought the trial would be nowhere near completion by the time Bush leaves office. Reflecting the sense that these are the dying days of Guantánamo, the air force engineers who built Camp Justice said it could be dismantled in a month. – Â

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