Four years after the first detainees in the U.S. war on terrorism were brought to makeshift jails at Guantanamo, construction workers in hard hats are putting up a two-story complex modeled after a mainland maximum-security prison.
This one will have air conditioning, a health clinic, recreation yards — and arrows pointing toward Mecca, the direction Muslims face while praying.
Officials at “Gitmo,” as American soldiers and sailors call the base, say the prison will make life better for detainees. But critics fear it underscores that for many prisoners, detention is apt to be a very long road.
“The U.S. government would like to turn Gitmo into a permanent prison camp with no legal recourse for detainees and to create a permanent legal black hole in which hundreds of individuals are held without ever being charged with crimes,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
When U.S. authorities flew the first 20 prisoners to Guantanamo Bay on Jan. 11, 2002, after the U.S.-led military campaign that ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, detainees were put into an improvised jail of open-air cells with walls of chain-link fence.
A look of permanence
Contractors are erecting the new prison at the foot of hills covered with jumbo cactuses, alongside the base’s only other maximum-security facility, which opened in May 2004.
It is expected to be completed in June and will be able to house 200 prisoners, while reducing the number of soldiers needed as guards.
“The new detention facilities are built because they’re just more efficient and they improve the quality of life for detainees,” said Army Lt. Col. Jeremy M. Martin, who insisted the prison is not a “sign of permanency.”
But senior Bush administration officials have said the war on terror will likely last for many years. Some detainees might be held for the duration, said Maj. Jane Boomer, a spokeswoman for the Office of Military Commissions, created to try suspected terrorists.
“They’re not being detained for criminal prosecution,” Boomer said. “They’re being detained to be kept off the battlefield.”
Rights debate continues
Only nine detainees have been charged since the detention center opened. Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor, said the military commission has completed several investigations but motions filed by defense attorneys have held up some trials.
A preliminary hearing began Wednesday on a conspiracy charge against a Yemeni man accused of being Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard in Afghanistan at the time of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States. Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul told the court he is boycotting the proceeding even if he is forced to attend.
Some defense attorneys and human rights observers insist the whole process is illegitimate.
“The U.S. continues to try and assert that Guantanamo is a place that exists sort of beyond the law, that no rules apply,” said Jumana Musa, a legal observer for Amnesty International. “The whole operation itself, it really runs counter to the fundamental components of human rights law, the idea that nobody can be held arbitrarily and indefinitely.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit group, has arranged for attorneys to work free in representing the approximately 500 detainees now at Guantanamo.
“The rule of law has yet to be reinstated in the U.S. battle on terror,” said Barbara Olshansky, the center’s deputy legal director. “The problem started when the (Bush) administration rejected the Geneva Conventions, which are intended to apply to every armed conflict in the world.”
Of the approximately 760 prisoners brought to Guantanamo since 2002, the military has released 180. It has also transferred 76 to the custody of other countries, such as Australia, Britain, Kuwait, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Dozens of prisoners have gone on hunger strikes — a sign, according to U.N. officials and rights groups, that some have lost hope.
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights said up to 200 people went on hunger strike in July, demanding to be put on trial or released. The military said only 52 prisoners were involved in that strike.
As of Tuesday, 42 prisoners were staging hunger strikes, officials said.
Thirty-two of those were being force fed by tube. Hunger strikers have previously alleged that U.S. troops inserted tubes without using anesthesia or sedatives to minimize pain and that tubes were reused without proper sanitation.
Martin said the feeding is “involuntary” but insisted there is no abuse or torture at the prison.