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Shocking Guantanamo images persist

London Telegraph | February 3, 2007
Damien McElroy

It is a sight that America does not want the world to see: a shackled prisoner wearing a blindfold, military earmuffs and boiler suit shuffling from an interrogation cell to a white van.

Detainees are assessed every year to see if they should be freed
Five years ago photographs of captured al-Qa'eda and Taliban suspects in rows of mesh holding pens at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, captured the world's attention.

The images are constantly replayed on televisions worldwide. In propaganda terms, those shots inflicted grave damage on America's image. No current photographs of detainees in transit can be published. Yet this week The Daily Telegraph witnessed one man being moved in this way.

His name and the reason for his detention are unknown beyond US officials. They are adamant that the 395 detainees at Guantanamo are treated in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and so cannot be put on display or interviewed.

According to one US officer, the detainee was being handled by the CIA. He was not willing to disclose anything else. "That's on a need to know basis," he said. At each of the six detention centres at Guantanamo Bay I saw many prisoners in conditions most will endure indefinitely.

advertisementIn Camp Four, the men, all dressed in white, live in trailer home-like structures and are free to stroll in the sun and hang out washing. They are the most privileged deemed by the guards to be "compliant", one of three categories of detainee.

The newest facility, Camp Six, is built to the standards of an American prison. Two-storey blocks lead off a central atrium. Aside from a small exercise area, there is no natural light. All the detainees are shut up for 22 hours a day in cells.

These men wear orange boiler suits, to indicate non-compliance with basic camp rules. Generally their hair and beards are long and shaggy. Their eyes stare with a fierce intensity.

Around the world America lost friends by designating these men "enemy combatants" rather than prisoners of war subject to the Geneva Conventions and by declaring its willingness to hold anyone it believed to be a threat for the duration of an indefinite war on terrorism.

US officials hope that some ground can be regained by providing the best accommodation, food and medical care its penal system can offer.

Brigadier General Edward Leacock, the deputy commander of the facility, pointed to the continuing value of holding the men. He said that more than 100 detainees were still interrogated frequently and provided intelligence.

Gen Leacock said: "We have gained vital intelligence about threats to the Winter Olympic Games in Turin last year and in Iraq. They are still dangerous."

Nearly 800 detainees have passed through Guantanamo since the 45-square-mile naval station, leased from Cuba, was picked as a detention camp outside America in Jan 2002.

A total of 377 detainees have either been set free or deported to face trial in other countries. Of those remaining, 295 face continued detention and a further 85 are being held pending transfer to other nations.

American officials claim that they range from foot soldiers to lieutenants of Osama bin Laden.

All have faced two military panels that evaluated their incarceration. First, a Combatant Status Review Tribunal decided if they could be categorised as Enemy Combatants. This decision is reviewed annually and release will be recommended if the detainee is deemed to be no longer a threat or incapable of providing useful intelligence.

Designating detainees as enemy combatants enables America to avoid key provisions of the Geneva Conventions, including the prohibition of interrogation and the requirement that all prisoners face a tribunal.

A prisoner's continued detention is ultimately in the hands of a politician, Gordon England, the deputy US defence secretary.

"This is not a legal process," said Capt Gary Haben, who manages the tribunals. "It's to determine who is deemed an unlawful enemy combatant. That is, they don't belong to a state and are not organised as fighters like we are."

As enemy combatants, detainees are held under a regime that officials claim is transparent for a time of war.

But the activities of agencies such as the CIA at Guantanamo are not open to scrutiny. As a result there is a black hole of information on some prisoners.

Last September the US military shipped an extra 14 "high value" detainees to Guantanamo. Five months later these men, said to be leading terrorists detained while attacking America, have not faced a tribunal.

They are thought to be held in separate area of Guantanamo, a camp overlooking the bay that cannot even be photographed.

Outside scrutiny of Guantanamo is steadily increasing. Hundreds of non-military visitors are granted access to camps Delta and America, the detention facilities on the base, each year, including the Red Cross and lawyers for detainees.

America maintains that suspects detained in war have no right to civilian due process but is committed to military proceedings for a minority of those interred.

While the new buildings are copies of existing American prisons, lawyers representing detainees claim that their clients are still suffering in brutal conditions. One lawyer has condemned Camp Six as no better than a "Nazi concentration camp".

Sabin Willett, an American lawyer, this week filed an emergency motion in a US court for Camp Six's closure but American judges have so far refused to rule on conditions at Guantanamo.

Ultimately the camp's fate rests in the hands of American politicians. From the base commander to prison guards, all its officials echoed the line they would be happy to see it close. But with no end in sight to military operations against Islamic terrorists that prospect seems to grow more distant.

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