At Guantanamo, the trial everyone faces is waiting
by Farah Stockman
November 23, 2007
Detainees delayed by Bush system
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE - No gum. No stretching. No open-toed shoes. These are the rules posted outside the Guantanamo Bay courtroom. Inside, it's full of new chairs and video cameras. But it has barely been used.
In the nearly six years that detainees have been held here, this 45-square-mile American base has seen more suicides than trials: Four detainees have killed themselves, while only one case has been completed, through a plea bargain.
The military commissions system that President Bush set up from scratch after Sept. 11 has faced so many legal challenges that even basic questions, including whether constitutional protections extend to the detainees, remain unresolved. So judges, lawyers, and detainees are forced to do what people on this isolated island base do most often: They wait.
Journalists waiting to cover trials can instead take the bimonthly "package tour" of the detention center to observe halal (the Muslim equivalent of Kosher) meals being prepared for the detainees and see the hospital where prisoners can get eye surgery and fittings for prosthetic limbs.
The military-issue press kit tells us that every Muslim detainee is issued a Koran in his native language and that interrogations are scheduled around the five times a day that devout Muslims are required to pray.
Such is the strange combination of deference and hostility toward the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Although most of the 330 detainees have been held since 2002 without being charged with a crime - and the US military admits it has no plans to release roughly 200 of them - the Guantanamo public affairs office emphasizes that the detainees will not be served a piece of lettuce with the slightest blemish on it.
Reporters, whose access stops at the prison gate, take turns posing in front of the sign that says "Camp V: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom." Another sign reminds the guards to "sanitize" their uniforms - military jargon for removing their nametags - before they enter.
Behind three fences and razor wire, the men whose hearings we have come to see are locked away, like exotic creatures in a high-security zoo.
Our military escorts tell us that cultural advisers help guards understand the detainees they watch, day after day, year after year. They tell us that prisoners in each cellblock elect their own imam. Guards put out orange cones at prayer time, a reminder to be quiet.
So sacred is prayer time that a detainee who used to disrupt it by yelling out "Muslims for Jesus" was sent away to another camp known as Camp Echo, which our guides tell us is also the place you go if you smear excrement on the walls.
In Camp Four, which houses the best-behaved detainees, we are told the men sleep in communal cells and can stroll outside at their leisure. Even in Camps Five and Six, the highest-security cellblocks, detainees can see the stars at night through a mesh wire, according to our escort, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Bush.
Each cell has a small recreation yard where detainees go alone for two hours a day, but can talk to their buddies on the other side of the fence, he says. Each yard has a treadmill, and each inmate gets a soccer ball.
But the press kit's descriptions are more austere. Only compliant detainees get a handful of "comfort items" such as underwear, mattresses, and extra toilet paper. There's no mention of soccer balls.
Particularly cooperative detainees get more rewards such as salt, pens and paper, prayer rugs, playing cards, and requests from the prison's 5,000-book library, including the Harry Potter series. Guards post soccer scores from around the world on a bulletin board.
Uncooperative detainees don't even get a washcloth. They must return their soap and toothpaste after each use. Blankets are delivered at 10 p.m., and collected at 5 a.m.
Suicides are a problem and hunger strikes have become the norm. Twelve detainees are refusing food this week, including two who have done so for more than a year. They are being force-fed and have become portly, we are told.
Lieutenant Colonel Bush offered no opinion of the suicides and the strikes.
"It's hard to get in their mindset and I don't think many of us try," he said. "Why did someone try to hurt themselves? Why do they hunger strike? The reasons are endless."
Will the detainees still be here three years from now? Bush pauses. "I honestly don't know," he answers. "I have yet to hear anyone offering a viable alternative."
So waiting has become a way of life. More than 400 lucky ones have been sent home without trial. So far, only eleven have been formally designated for trial. Three are in pretrial proceedings.
Nevertheless, builders are finishing Camp Justice, a massive, tan-colored tent city along a treeless airstrip. It is designed to accommodate up to 500, including stenographers, journalists, interpreters, and lawyers, according to Major Chad Warren.
Tents give the military the low-cost flexibility to conduct multiple trials at once, or pack quickly and go home if the Supreme Court or a new president decides otherwise.
If a full-fledged trial were ever to take place, a detainee headed to court would be driven out of the prison past rows of military houses that resemble an American subdivision, with street names such as Caribbean Circle.
More than 6,000 people, including military dependents and third-country migrants, now live on the 100-year-old American base. The work force includes three Cubans employed before Fidel Castro took power.
Dozens of Cuban asylum seekers plucked from the sea also live here as they wait to be sent to third countries. Since they can't go home or to the United States, they wait in limbo on this fenced-off tip of the island until someone tells them they can leave.
Two weeks ago, journalists ran the gantlet of security to watch a rare arraignment. Two hours later, it was over, with critical issues postponed. But there was no military flight off the island that day or the next. So, like everyone else, we waited to leave.
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