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Regret and resentment at Guantanamo

Omar Razek
October 18, 2006

As President Bush signs a new law allowing Guantanamo detainees to be tried in military tribunals using evidence obtained through coercion, the BBC's Omar Razek reflects on a recent visit to the notorious prison complex.

I could hear the midday call to prayer coming from different camps.

I could also see the sweating face of a young man on a small carriage, his hands and legs shackled, driven by two military guards under the burning sun.

He was Abdel-Razzaq, a Saudi detainee caught in Afghanistan after the fall of Taleban and he was going before an Administrative Review Board (ARB).

In these annual hearings, military officers review the status of each detainee, deciding if they are still an "enemy combatant" or not.

Abdel-Razzaq was one of more than 450 people - most with Arab and Muslim names - held by the US authorities in five (soon to be six) camps in the notorious Guantanamo detention complex.

Before his ARB, he expressed his regret for being in Afghanistan.

"I was 17-years-old and full of enthusiasm for jihad, but now after five years in Guantanamo I have changed. I need to go back to my country, lead a simple life care for my old parents and have a wife and kids."

He says two of his brothers were killed in jihad, one in Chechnya and one in Afghanistan. He was arrested with a third brother fleeing Afghanistan after the war, and transferred later to Guantanamo.

The ARB members greeted him with respect and asked him to convince others to co-operate and attend their annual reviews.

Abdel-Razzaq complained that some of the evidence presented to the board - especially evidence kept from detainees - is false or was taken under pressure or psychological torture.

The ARB's chief promised to investigate this.

But the main plea Abdel-Razzaq made to the board through his interpreter was a solemn one: "What I want really know is simple: Will you release me or not?"

The ARB don't have an answer for that question. They merely raise their recommendation to the deputy secretary of defence, who decides about release or transfer.

The board has reviewed 91 cases so far this year. None of the prisoners was released, 33 were transferred and 58 are still in detention.

Thorny situation

After three days in Guantanamo, I got the impression that no-one is happy here - neither prisoners nor guards.

The authorities are always trying hard to convince visiting media, human rights groups and parliamentarians, that Guantanamo is a model prison.

They provide big meals, special food for Ramadan, respect for prayer times, copies of Quran and a library for detainees.

But in the six-foot by six-foot cells, I saw chronically overweight detainees. Their only physical activity is walking the six square metres of the recreation area for 30 minutes, twice a week.

The most compliant detainees have access to the recreation area for several hours.

'I was volunteered'

On entering Camp Five, the most sophisticated prison in Guantanamo, we heard a detainee hysterically shouting at his guard.

The commander of Camp Five, who does not give out his name, said: "They do this usually to attract attention when they sense visitors coming."

We weren't told the detainee's identity, but those in Camp Five are the "the most valuable detainees", according to the commander.

Military guard K, 19, is from Texas. I asked him whether he volunteered to serve here. "No, I was volunteered," he said.

He says that for guards like him there was no choice, but he doesn't want to renew his service here since he was "not trained as military police".

K also complained of threats and assaults on him by detainees.

"They call me nigger, slave, they touch their necks and say 'We will kill you in Iraq'," he said.

"I know why they do it, to provoke me, so that I will make a mistake. But I will just do my job, finish it, go and work out, or go fishing or read my Bible".

Personality disorders

The female psychologist in the detainees' hospital gave reporters her observations.

An American journalist asked her: "Do you know why they hate America?"

Another inquired: "How do they treat you as a female, can they talk to you?"

"They like talking to me," the doctor said. "They are co-operative I can say."

Yet she painted a very gloomy picture for her patients.

"About eight to 10% have been diagnosed with depression, another 15% have anxiety disorder, about 20% have psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

"About half of them have a personality disorder. Sometimes this is a sort of problem in adjustment and coping," she said.

Despite the continuing protests from human rights groups and the appeals to try the detainees or release them, everything I saw in Guantanamo suggests that this military detention complex will stay open as long as America's "war on terror" continues.

"We picked them from the front lines we have the right to detain those who threaten our security or the security of our allies," said Brigadier General Edward Leacock, the prison complex's deputy commander.

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