Gulag that shames the west

By David Jones

Five years after Obama said he'd shut it, over 100 prisoners, including a British resident - are still chained in Guantanamo. David Jones went inside and was horrified by what he found.

A shackled detainee meets with medical personnel in Camp 6, at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, in Cuba. Photo / AP
A shackled detainee meets with medical personnel in Camp 6, at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, in Cuba. Photo / AP

Dawn is still two hours away and for those on the outside, beyond the reinforced concrete walls and coiled barbed wire, the good life in Guantanamo Bay has stilled temporarily.

McDonald's has closed, the numerous bars, restaurants and Caribbean beaches that make this shameful prison colony such a coveted posting for fun-loving American servicemen and women have emptied, and the temperature has cooled sufficiently for even the indolent iguanas to slither about.

For the 166 men who languish inside the detainee camps here, however, out of sight and mind on a sealed-off section of this 45-square-mile naval base in south-eastern Cuba (leased to the US for more than a century under an agreement the Castro regime is powerless to break), time is of no consequence.

Since there is no natural light in the 8ft x 12ft cells just the eerie halogen glow from a tube that is never switched off and the air conditioning maintains a permanently uncomfortable chill, this is a place that for them has no night or day.

And as many of these non-privileged belligerents to use the latest terminology have been shut away here since 2002 (yet still have not the remotest prospect of release) it is equally a place where no one troubles to tick off the weeks, months and years. In short, it is a place utterly devoid of hope.

That became clear this week when I returned to Guantanamo Bay, more than a decade after my first visit, on a choreographed media tour to promote the Pentagon's ludicrous mantra that the detention facility is safe, humane, legal, transparent at a time when 100 detainees are on hunger strike.

Of these, 23 are so alarmingly weak that, terrified of the backlash that would ensue in the Islamic world should any of them die, the US authorities have just dispatched 40 military nurses to force-feed them through Nasal tubes, in contravention of the ethical codes set down by all international medical and humanitarian organisations.

But the mass starvation protest, in its third month, is not the only sign the camp, dubbed Gulag Gitmo opened in the earliest days of George W. Bush's war on terror as a seemingly convenient legal no-man's-land where enemy combatants (as they were then called) could be held and interrogated in perpetuity is fast approaching meltdown.

Not long ago, the majority of detainees were deemed sufficiently compliant to be permitted to live communally; they had almost unlimited exercise, albeit in a stony, sun-baked quad, and many were given privileges such as cable TV, PlayStations and watches.

Now, they are being held in solitary confinement or single cell occupancy, as the 14 (yes, 14) public affairs officers charged with improving the prison camps image would prefer me to phrase it.

It has been that way since mid-April when, in retaliation for the guards alleged mishandling of their Korans and frustrated that Guantanamo is no nearer to closing, five years after Barack Obama's pious pledge to shut it down, the detainees blocked 147 of the 160 security cameras used to keep them under surveillance.

As ever, the response was swift and ruthless. In what one officer described to me candidly as a shakedown, each prisoner was forcibly removed to a cell that he can leave for only two hours exercise a day and all luxury items were confiscated, right down to toothbrushes and pillows.

Permitted to sit inside one of these cells, with its white-painted walls, stainless steel sink and toilet, and the narrow padded ledge that serves as a bed, I tried and failed to imagine what it might feel like to remain here interminably.

They get 85 sq ft of unencumbered space, the female officer in charge of Camp 5, where some of the men are kept, intoned proudly, as though renting out a bedsit, when she showed me inside.

Little wonder, then, that Shaker Aamer the British resident who has been in Guantanamo since February, 2002 and continues to be held five years after he was cleared for release is clinging to sanity by his fingertips. I don't want to scare his family [he is married with four London-born children, one of whom he has never seen], but the look in his eyes is that of a man who is just holding it together, his lawyer Cori Crider, of the prisoners rights group Reprieve, told me after spending an afternoon with the man that guards identify simply as Detainee 239.

Earlier that day, I had witnessed the primal anger and desperation that torments Guantanamos forgotten detainees when I was permitted to watch their 5am call to prayer.

As I was ushered into Cell Block G, on Camp 6, the crackling of two-way radios and jangling of keys abated, and silence descended.

It was broken, moments later, by the prayer leaders chant echoing through the open food-hatch in his cell door a chant of such raw emotion that it surely stirred the most dispassionate guardsman. But then one of the detainees apparently spotted me, and a French TV crew, through the narrow slit window in his cell door, and seizing the opportunity to vent his feelings to an outsider began kicking and punching the heavy metal door.

Within seconds, his banging protest had spread throughout Camp 6 and across to the adjacent Camp 5, and dozens of frenzied prisoners were beating and kicking their cell doors, oblivious to the physical pain. Clearly annoyed that the detainees had scored a victory, the bluff Louisianan officer in charge hastily ushered us outside. Later our media handlers chastised us for making ourselves too visible.

One pre-requisite for us being allowed into the camp was that restrictions were also imposed on what photographs we were allowed to take away with us.

Thus it was that a quite brilliant picture by Mail photographer Mark Richards, which portrayed the haunting isolation of one silhouetted detainee more poignantly than could any number of words, was deleted under the operational security rules that block the visual truths of Guantanamo at almost every turn.

Officially, this state censorship, which is contrary to everything America stands for, is enforced to protect the rights of the prisoners as well as the guards, but, of course, it ensures there is no repeat of the appalling images that will forever define Guantanamo: the first, orange boiler-suited detainees cowering in the wire cages of the now closed Camp X-ray.

I first visited Gitmo in November 2002, a few months after those photographs were published, when the public mood was very different.

With memories of the Twin Towers atrocity still raw, many were prepared to accept, albeit with great reluctance, that the usual rules and ethics of conflict no longer applied.

Few doubted Bush when he told us that the men who were flown there had been caught in the act of waging war on America and its allies, and that among them were the worst of the worst.

More than a decade on, we know the truth to be very different. Only a handful of the 779 detainees who have passed through Gitmo have been put before the dubious, perpetually delayed military commissions staged in Camp Justice, the hill-top courthouse.

They include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his cohorts in the so-called 9/11 Five who, it seems certain, plotted the World Trade Centre attack.

These rock stars of Gitmo, as one young servicemen ill-advisedly described them, are held in Camp 7, an unreachable, unmapped secret prison on the naval base, which officially doesn't exist.

As for the others, nine have died (seven by suicide, two of natural causes) and almost 600 more have been freed without charge to return to their own countries or others that have agreed to take them off Americas hands.

Curiously, Albania has offered sanctuary to the most, accepting 11.

According to a study by academics at a respected US law school, the reason more haven't been prosecuted is all too plain: 80 per cent of the 770 were rounded up by opportunistic Afghans and Pakistanis after the Taleban regime collapsed and were each sold to the Americans for a $5,000 bounty.

Since that sum will secure a poor Pashtun farmer for life, it seems pretty clear that many of the detainees were innocent.

Shaker Aamer, who insists he was doing charity work in Afghanistan when he was captured, claims to be among them.

Yet as Jane Ellison, his Tory MP in Battersea, told me, whether or not his story is true is beside the point. In America, as in Britain, a man is innocent until proven guilty, and if he is not to be charged he must go free.

Why does he remain here after 11 years when Foreign Secretary William Hague has requested that Shaker Aamer be allowed to join the 14 other former Gitmo prisoners who have returned peaceably to Britain?

Among the cross-party coalition fighting his cause, some suspect he knows too much about the iniquities perpetrated in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere; a view shared by his lawyers.

If so, it could explain why the Americans say they have sanctioned his transfer only to his birth country of Saudi Arabia, where he would again be imprisoned indefinitely.

Unsurprisingly, Gitmos public affairs chief Captain Robert Durand holds a different view.

The mere fact that Aamer and many others will not be brought before a court of law and have been classified as non-threatening does not exonerate them, he told me earnestly over dinner. Turning justice on its head, he added: They have not been found innocent.

Under the law of war as defined by the Geneva Convention, the US was entitled to keep them off the battlefield until the hostilities ceased, Durand argued.

But this is a war with no parameters and no ending in sight, I pointed out so when might that be? All of these big questions are asked and I don't have the answers.

Neither, it is clear, does his President. A few days ago, Obama restated his desire to remove this stain on the national conscience by shutting Gitmo, declaring the very concept of the prison colony contrary to who we are.

But the uncomfortable fact is that Bush, the neo-conservative, did more to close the facility than Obama, the liberal, has ever done.

He sent home many more detainees and at least tried to set the cogs of justice turning.

Under this Nobel Peace Prize-winning Commander-in-Chief, however, investment in Guantanamo Bay continues apace, despite the squeeze on national public spending, so that these days there is a depressing sense of permanence about this American corner of Cuba.

The transformation since I was last here is remarkable. Ten years ago, it was a neglected base with a few crumbling buildings and poor facilities; I was billeted in a spartan dorm.

This time, gazing from the fifth-floor window of my naval hotel suite, I could be in any prosperous town in Connecticut or California.

There is a floodlit sports complex and golf course, a drive-in movie theatre and bowling alley, family parks and swimming pools, shops and banks, and fashionable new suburbs, such as West Iguana and Caribbean Circle, with spacious homes for the officers.

People glide around in their 4x4s, making sure to avoid the iguanas (which have considerably more rights than any detainee, since running one over is punishable with a US$10,000 fine) and everyone is unfailingly pleasant.

It is rather like being in that unnerving village from which no one can escape in the Sixties TV series The Prisoner; so long as you don't question what goes on beyond the security gate, everything's fine.

For one young sergeant, its all very simple.

I never think of the detainees at all, he told me when I asked his opinion of them. When they first came here, I was still in high school. I just zone out.

The uneasy sense that you have entered some fantasy-land continues at the camp hospital, where the frailest hunger strikers are being force-fed.

Fearful of being identified, but accepting that a degree of familiarity is necessary when you are forcing a tube through someone's nose and into their stomach as they sit strapped to a chair, the medical team wear false names on their Army uniforms.

At present, these are drawn from Shakespeare; so there are nurses called Lodowick (from Measure For Measure) and Ophelia.

The young psychiatrist treating about half the 166 detainees for anxiety or depression is Dionyza. Whether her patients realised they are being helped by a character from Pericles is anyone's guess.

The base commander has reportedly asked for a further $80 million package of improvements, including a new hospital for the detention camps, secure offices where the detainees can meet their lawyers and a fibre-optic cable link with Florida to speed up the painfully slow internet service.

All this on top of the $150 million a year it is costing to keep the 166 detainees (about 50 times more than the average prisoner in a state penitentiary) including $2 million a year on halal food, which has to be brought from the mainland by barge, like all other supplies.

It hardly suggests a place on the brink of closure, does it?

Faced with opinion polls that consistently show 60 per cent of Americans want their gulag to remain open, ignoring the fact that its very existence serves as a recruiting tool for terrorists, Obama tries to say as little as possible these days about its future.

When he does, he tacitly shifts the blame for its continued existence to the Republican majority in Congress, whose determination to keep it open was underlined recently by a law that bans the use of funds to transfer detainees overseas.

After more than five years, however, his excuses have worn thin.

The man who titled his life story The Audacity Of Hope has never once travelled to Guantanamo Bay and experienced the despair that moved me to the brink of tears this week.

If he did so, he would surely find a way to tear down these cold, timeless camps without delay.

- Daily Mail

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