Guantánamo Bay has long been a thorn in the side of Fidel Castro, Cuba’s president. But since the US started bringing prisoners captured in the “war on terror” there in 2002, it has become an even bigger headache for President George W. Bush.
US officials concede that the detention facilities at Guantánamo naval base have, second only to those at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, tarred the image of the US around the world. But although Mr Bush says he wants to close the prison, his administration is grappling with tough political and legal issues, including where to hold about 150 of the 305 detainees who will never be brought before military commissions.
Guantánamo originally came under criticism over allegations of abusive detention and interrogation practices. A recently leaked Guantánamo operations manual from 2003 outlined, for example, methods to “enhance and exploit the disorientation” of new detainees by denying them access to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Lt Col Edward Bush, the military spokesman at Guantánamo, said that there have been many changes in the operating procedures since 2003, adding that the ICRC is now granted full access to detainees.
While allegations of abuse have subsided, lawyers for the detainees are more concerned about the prolonged detentions, legislation that prevents detainees from challenging their incarceration in federal courts, and the military commissions system created by the administration to try detainees.
“The medieval physical brutality has more or less been cleared up in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal,” said Shane Kadidal, head of the Guantánamo project at the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose lawyers represent some of the Guantánamo detainees.
Mr Kadidal stresses that prolonged detention, particularly for prisoners kept in isolation, can leave longer-lasting psychological scars. A string of legal decisions – including a Supreme Court ruling last year that the original military commissions were illegal – has meant that, almost six years since the first detainee arrived at Guantánamo, not one has gone on trial.
During a recent visit to Guantánamo to report on the military commission of Omar Khadr, a 21-year-old Canadian who has spent almost a quarter of his life at the centre for allegedly killing a US soldier in Afghanistan, reporters were given a “windshield” tour of the detention facilities.
Our first stop was Camp X-Ray, where the first batches of detainees, clad in orange jumpsuits, were held in cramped, cage-like cells exposed to the sun in early 2002. Today the long-abandoned camp is overrun with grass, and most of the detainees are now housed in three facilities – numbered four, five and six – several kilometres away in Camp Delta. Camp four is a lower-security facility where detainees live communally. While reporters were not allowed to see any detainees on this visit, Lt Col Bush, said detainees in camp four could garden, and had a large television on which they watched soccer and a weekly movie.
Camps five and six, by contrast, are high-security facilities where detainees live in single cells, isolated from their fellow inmates, with only two hours of exercise a day.
Every morning commanders hold a “battle update brief” to assess the behaviour of detainees and determine whether they should be moved to a less, or more, secure facility.
The clothes detainees wear also provide a hint about their location. While some still wear orange clothes, “compliant” prisoners wear tan. “Highly compliant” detainees, such as Mr Khadr, wear white.
In an effort to stress the improved conditions at Guantánamo, Col Bush joked that reporters would be served browned lettuce that would not be deemed acceptable for detainees. More seriously, he said 12 detainees were on hunger strike, including two men who had refused food for more than a year, although he said the numbers had decreased from a high of 60 in the past six months.
Jamil Dakwar, at the American Civil Liberties Union, agrees that conditions have improved at Guantánamo, but stresses that one of the reasons some detainees are on hunger strike is to protest against the indefinite detention and isolation.
The Pentagon hopes that when the military commissions finally start they will help thin the prisoner population and move towards the goal of shuttering the detention facilities. But whether that can happen before the end of the Bush administration or the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, on January 1 2009, a few days earlier, is uncertain.