Untried Guantanamo prisoners count the hours





By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 9 October 2004

Swams of gnats arrived in the wake of the hurricane season rains that lashed Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay. The Caribbean sun dried the ground back to its normal parched brown, but the gnats have stayed.

For the 750 prisoners who have been transported in shackles and blindfolds from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the maze of chainlink fences at the US naval base on Cuba, the passing of the season is a rare chance to trace the passage of time.

The remaining 549 alleged al-Qaeda and Taliban militants detained there are allowed no radios, televisions or newspapers to follow events beyond Camp Delta’s razor wire perimeter.

Human rights lawyers seeking to end the indefinite incarceration have demanded that the cases against the detainees be heard in civilian courts. Only after intense lobbying have lawyers gained occasional access to the detainees.

But the Bush administration defends the imprisonments as essential to confronting the terror threat.

“Gitmo provides a unique place where we can do strategic interrogations,” says a senior interrogator at Camp Delta. “I want to keep these guys safe. We know more about them than they think we do, and we are just waiting for them to tell us their stories in their own words.”

Last week, the US transferred 10 more men from Afghanistan to the prison. They are destined for intense isolation and intensive interrogation.

“We have been very careful to see that we don’t disrupt the intelligence gathering activities with the arrival of new detainees,” says Brigadier General Jay Hood, commander of the task force that runs the camp.

He says that even though prisoners discuss current issues, “we are not going to allow them to use what’s going on in the rest of the world as a counter-interrogation technique. The guards have a very clearly laid-out series of guidelines in terms of what they can discuss with the detainees.”

Co-operation by the detainees brings rewards. These include “comfort items” such as prayer mats, books from a library – Agatha Christie is available in Arabic – and pens that bend so they cannot be used as weapons, or their relocation to more comfortable living quarters.

“If they try to use their trousers to kill themselves, or break camp rules, they can lose the comfort items,” says Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Jahnke, deputy commander of Camp Delta. This process of reward and deprivation is intended to bring “behaviour modification”, he says.

According to Brig Gen Martin Lucenti, Gen Hood’s deputy, there have been 34 suicide attempts at the camp, by 24 detainees. A British detainee, Moazzam Begg, claimed in aletter received by his lawyer last week that he had been subject to “continuous torture” at Guantanamo.

Three other British detainees, released in March, also alleged in a statement that they had been routinely beaten, deprived of sleep and humiliated while at Baghram jail in Afghanistan and after their arrival at Guantanamo Bay.

A senior US military officer at the base describes the torture accusations as “bullshit”. An interrogator goes further: “We like to compare what we do here as being like a pitcher and a catcher in baseball. The interrogator is like the pitcher, who throws the ball. The catcher is the one who sets up the questions,” he says, insisting that “everything that we do, we have to do in accordance with the Geneva conventions”.

“If you tortured, you wouldn’t trust the information that we got. There are some who have been very resistant, but after two and half years they begin to talk,” he says.

Intense micro-managing of the lives of the prisoners, who are shackled when they leave their fenced compounds, has reduced the resistance of some, and hardened others.

Six of the 200 so far released because they were judged either low intelligence value or low threat, have either gone back to fighting for Islamist groups – according to US officials – or announced that they intend to.

For the high-security prisoners that remain, the enterprising guards at camp five within the complex downloaded the Muslim call to prayer from a website. They now transmit it five times a day through the intercom system that reaches the 50 maximum security cells.

“What they were trying to accomplish here was to minimise the amount of movement of detainees,” says the sergeant in charge of Camp Delta’s “supermax” prison.

“The building is fully automated. The detainees get an hour’s recreation three times each week. But we don’t give them soccer balls, because they are not allowed by the standard operating procedures,” he says.

In a glass-panelled control room at the heart of camp five, screens relayed real-time pictures of every prisoner’s incarceration. On a screen marked “camera one” a ghostly figure moved across a cell, lay down on a bed, wrapped himself in a sheet and was motionless.

Four other camps within the Camp Delta complex have a less severe regime. But all are intended to bring the “behaviour modification” that may produce useful intelligence on terrorism.

Eight-bed dormitories for the “co-operative” prisoners of camp four are under constant watch by a military policeman sitting behind a grille in the corner.

“Detainees are identified in camp four by their bed numbers. We don’t necessarily know their names. The detainee understands. It’s not disrespect,” says Sergeant Todd Rundle. He explains that provision of a curtain to cover the shower is good reason for prisoners to be content to be housed there rather than in a bloc where the shower is open.

Lawyers for the detainees argue that the unlimited detention, and the decision to conduct military trials of at least 15 detainees alleged to be enemy combatants, are legally groundless.

“None of us essentially knows the reason for the detentions, and the idea that these guys after three years are enemy combatants is preposterous,” says Brent Mickum, a lawyer for three British detainees.

Gen Hood insists the prisoners are treated in accordance with the Geneva conventions that govern conduct during wartime. He is less clear about whether the conventions permit the detention in the first place.

“No American would tell you that the ends justify the means,” he says.

“This is a conflict like no other that any of our countries have been involved in, against an enemy that is utterly different in terms of character and method. That’s what steers the debate.”


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.