The View from Guantanamo
The Toronto Star
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA - In what looks like a strangely choreographed dance, they pace. Guards in camouflage and tan military boots walk non-stop back and forth along two floors of cells. Their eyes are trained on the row of small windows through which they watch detainees also on the move. A few are sitting, one is rocking back and forth, but most of them pace, almost keeping step with the guards. This is Camp 6, the holding centre for nearly half of the 395 detainees still housed at the U.S. naval base on the southeast corner of Cuba.
Canadian Omar Khadr now lives in this modern building modelled after a Michigan prison. Officials boast that the guards are better protected here than in other camps and that detainees enjoy more privacy and new amenities, including air conditioning.
But lawyers for the detainees say the isolation – there's little or no contact with others at this facility – is driving the men mad.
"They have never experienced anything like this at Guantanamo. They pass days of infinite tedium and loneliness," states a U.S. Court of Appeals petition filed last week by lawyers representing seven Camp 6 detainees.
One man's neighbour, it continues, "is constantly hearing voices, shouting out and being punished. All describe a feeling of despair, crushing loneliness and abandonment by the world."
Two weeks ago, Khadr's military-appointed lawyer travelled here to visit with the 20-year-old Canadian and prepare for his impending military tribunal. But despite Lt.-Col. Colby Vokey's efforts, Khadr refused to meet him.
Exactly why Khadr refused the visit is uncertain, but Vokey says it adds to his concern about the Canadian's mental stability.
"It seems he doesn't want to have anything to do with anyone any more – the guards, lawyers – he's becoming withdrawn from the world," Vokey said in an interview.
During a December visit by U.S. civilian lawyer Muneer Ahmad, Khadr was largely unresponsive.
For almost a year, Khadr's legal team has tried to bring in an independent psychiatrist to assess their client, but so far visits by non-Department of Defence doctors have been denied.
Canadian Foreign Affairs spokesperson Alain Cacchione said consular officials continue to make "welfare visits," to Khadr. But when asked the date of the last visit or an assessment of Khadr's condition, Cacchione cited privacy concerns – even though that information about Khadr has been released in the past.
Cacchione says Canadian officials continue to speak with their American counterparts to raise the issue of arranging a visit by Khadr's two Edmonton-based lawyers, whom he has never met.
Khadr is here because the Bush administration has designated him an "enemy combatant" and says he killed a U.S. soldier and injured others in Afghanistan. He's the second-youngest son of reputed Al Qaeda financier Ahmed Said Khadr, who was killed in Pakistan in 2003. The Khadr family grew up close to Osama bin Laden's and after 9/11 family members scattered throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Khadr was captured in a town near the Pakistan border in July 2002, at age 15, after a lengthy firefight during which he allegedly threw the grenade that killed U.S. medic Sgt. Christopher Speer.
Four months later, after his 16th birthday, he was transferred to Guantanamo and last year was one of 10 detainees charged with war crimes – the only one charged with murder.
Soldiers who witnessed his capture said in past interviews that they didn't see a teenager that day, but rather a trained fighter who wanted to kill Americans. The chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo military tribunals later echoed these sentiments, calling Khadr a "terrorist."
Khadr appeared at the tribunal twice last year before the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the process unconstitutional, thus forcing the Bush administration to develop a new procedure sanctioned by Congress.
Guantanamo Bay's chief military prosecutor, Col. Morris Davis, has prepared murder charges against Khadr, restarting the process of putting the former Toronto resident on trial for war crimes.
"It's a case where I believe we have evidence to prove that he made a decision to take the life of a service member," Davis said in a telephone interview.
He said he hopes the case will be tried as early as this summer. If his recommendations are approved, Khadr will be officially charged and could appear before a military commission for pre-trial hearings within 30 days.
Defence lawyer Vokey's visit to Camp 6 was supposed to be a chance for him to show Khadr the evidence – allegations, documents, video – provided by the prosecution.
"I'm not even close to getting ready (to defend him). I haven't been able to talk to him about the case at all," Vokey said.
"Now, the conditions of his incarceration, his solitary confinement, have caused his deterioration and I question whether he can participate in his defence. It's difficult enough for any kid to understand, much less anyone who has endured what Omar has been through. He has an eighth grade education and the maturity level of a 15-year-old."
It has been more than five years since the first detainees arrived at the base on Jan. 11, 2002. Much has changed since those initial images were captured of detainees clad in orange jumpsuits kneeling on the airport runway or shackled to a gurney. Of the more than 700 who have been held here over those years, about 380 have been released or surrendered to their home governments.
But five years has brought new problems, such as the questions about Camp 6 and the effect of prolonged isolation.
It was clear during the Star's visit last week that there's weariness about the sustained international criticism. There's a defensiveness that runs right through the chain of command – from the camp's commanders to the guards who endure assaults by some of the detainees with what are referred to as "cocktails," concoctions of bodily fluids including excrement.
More than one official referred to the "Manchester Document" as a way to counter questions about the detainees' allegations of torture or accusations that the conditions of their detention fall below the international standard set out in the Geneva Conventions.
The document is an alleged Al Qaeda training manual unearthed by police in Manchester, England, that advises would-be terrorists to claim abuse and torture upon capture.
Brig.-Gen. Edward Leacock, the camp's second-in-command, said in an interview last week that the accusations have never been substantiated and he now believes Guantanamo is "probably the most transparent detention facility in the world."
It's true that hundreds of lawyers, journalists, politicians and members of non-government organizations have been escorted through tours here and continue to do so.
But some things remain off limits, such as any interviews with detainees. Journalists must sign ground rules that stipulate they will not talk with detainees; doing that will get them kicked off the island.
Questions about the 14 so-called high-level detainees – such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, and Abu Zubaydah, who is sometimes referred to as Al Qaeda's No. 3 leader – are also met with silence.
It was announced in September that the 14 were brought here from undisclosed CIA-run facilities around the world, but no one will say where they're kept on the base, and none of these men has yet had access to lawyers.
One day last week behind the wire of the detention facility, an unidentified detainee – shackled, handcuffed, wearing headphones and with his eyes covered – was led from a white van to a portable near the empty Camp 2 and 3 facilities.
No pictures were allowed and repeated questions about the procedure were met with shrugged shoulders. One official later confirmed that the CIA normally travels in those vans and eventually a public affairs lieutenant answered that whatever went on inside the portable faintly marked 12A, was strictly a "need to know" scenario.
The message was clear. He didn't need to know, and neither did we.
Camp 6 wasn't supposed to operate this way.
It was intended as a good news story, hailed for its state-of-the-art construction, controlled temperature and ability for inmates to interact.
The detention facilities are numbered by when they were built and they have become more modern with time. Camp 4, which is still in operation, houses what are known as "compliant detainees" who are allowed to live communally in units surrounding an outdoor recreation centre where they play basketball and other sports.
The plan for Camp 6 was to allow similar interaction – described by many as their lifelines while in custody – during recreation and meal times.
But then came last spring's uprising in Camp 4, in which some of the guards were ambushed. Two months later, three detainees hanged themselves in one of the other camps. International condemnation followed.
"One of the questions we always ask ourselves at that point is do we have what we call a medium-security terrorist?" said Brig.-Gen. Leacock when asked if these occurrences changed Camp 6's operation.
"Well, we made an assessment based upon the threats that were imposed by the detainees over a period of time, the threat of bodily fluids, the verbal threats, we looked at both the attempted suicides and the suicides themselves and we said we must take procedures to protect our guard force and secondly also to address and do everything we can to make sure the detainees are treated safely and humanely and not give them an opportunity to harm themselves."
So Camp 6, the $37 million (U.S.) facility pieced together like Lego blocks from prefabricated sections shipped from the United States, began to change. The recreation area where Camp 6 detainees are allotted two hours a day was caged into individual units.
The eating area with steel picnic tables at the centre of each triangle pod of 22 cells is off limits indefinitely, so the men get their food inserted through small slots in their cell doors.
Plexiglas and other shields limit any contact between guards and detainees.
Camp 4's bustling population was reduced to just over 30.
Among those shuffled to Camp 6 were the 18 Uighurs – members of an ethnic minority in northwestern China – who have been detained since they were sold for a bounty in Pakistan to the U.S. military in December 2001. Their cases have long attracted controversy since the men have claimed they were never aligned with Al Qaeda, but instead opposed the Chinese government's control of their homeland. It was their lawyers who filed the petition last week protesting Camp 6's isolation.
In March 2005, a U.S. review tribunal determined that five of the Uighurs were "no longer enemy combatants," and could be released. Albania eventually accepted them and they now reside at a housing complex run by the United Nations.
Now, others have been told they're cleared for "transfer," which means they can be returned to the care of their government, even though they're still designated "enemy combatants."
But because China views the Uighurs as members of a rebellious minority, the Americans won't return them to face torture or execution and no other country has offered to accept them.
So they also live in Camp 6.
"These guys are on the brink. They don't know what to do and their minds are warping," said one of their lawyers, Jason Pinney, in a telephone interview.
"To transfer these men to a solitary confinement style prison in their sixth year of detention – after telling them for years that they were picked up by mistake and should be released – is inexcusable."
The effects of housing inmates in what's known as "supermax" prisons is being hotly debated in the United States.
In Texas and California, suicide rates among inmates in solitary confinement are on the rise, prompting more studies and constitutional challenges.
In a case that could impact the future cases against Guantanamo detainees, lawyers for terrorism suspect Jose Padilla questioned whether their client is mentally fit to stand trial due to the effects of his isolated incarceration.
Since Padilla is an American citizen, he was not held in Guantanamo but rather instead held for 3 1/2 years in isolation on a military brig and designated an "enemy combatant."
Before his lawyers could finish a court challenge to that designation and detention, Padilla was charged criminally with conspiracy and moved to Miami, where his case is being tried.
Although the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay has been in existence for more than 100 years, due to a land-lease treaty signed with Cuba (the treaty states that both parties must agree to terminate the agreement, so the U.S. has remained and Fidel Castro has protested by never cashing the yearly rent cheques), the detention centre began as a hastily constructed pen to hold the hundreds captured during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The main priority at that time, shortly after 9/11 when many feared more attacks on American soil were imminent, was the interrogation of suspects.
But Guantanamo has become a symbol for what critics allege is America's disregard for domestic and international law.
On one of the boats that ferry journalists, lawyers and base workers from the camp to their leeward-side accommodations, lawyer Gitanjali Gutierrez clutched the box of baklava she'd just shared with her clients and reflected on how Guantanamo has changed.
She was the first lawyer to speak with detainees in September 2004, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detainees had the right to legal counsel and could challenge their detention. She has made the trip here from her Center for Constitutional Rights office in New York many times since.
"They were just shell-shocked. They were getting news for the first time from outside," she said about those first meetings. "It has been a downhill battle since ... and they now just struggle to maintain hope.
"This place isn't just illegal, it's immoral, and I don't think the U.S. can afford to keep it open."
President George W. Bush has said he'd like to close Guantanamo, but no one believes that will happen anytime soon.
For some critics, Guantanamo has become a quagmire.
"The irony is the administration is as much a prisoner of Guantanamo as the prisoners," said lawyer Joe Margulies, author of Guantanamo and The Abuse of Presidential Power.
"They are prisoners of their own rhetoric.
"What are they going to do? They've vowed to keep people in for as long as they're dangerous. They've said that people like Omar Khadr have to be brought to justice. They're getting pounded in the courts, in Congress, in the public, in the press, in world opinion as each day goes by, but what's the exit strategy? It's like Iraq. What are they going to do?"
But officials here often respond to such questions with one of their own: Where do the detainees go – especially those who were likely influential Taliban or Al Qaeda members?
The near future will bring new military tribunals for Khadr and a handful of others. But the constitutionality of the process itself – including challenges to the use of coerced, hearsay or secret evidence during the hearings – is again likely to be argued all the way to the Supreme Court.
The 14 so-called high-level detainees will appear before the review tribunals to test whether they are enemy combatants. But no date has been set, nor has the decision been made as to whether media can attend the hearings.
For the 50-plus detainees who, like the Uighurs, have been cleared to leave, negotiations continue on their detention in their home countries or elsewhere.
And for the rest, now beginning their sixth year of detention with an uncertain future, their cases are reviewed by a board each year to decide if they remain a threat or if they can still provide intelligence.
Meanwhile, officials say, Camp 6 is nearly filled to capacity.
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