Rights flouted at Guantanamo Bay
Even officers at the US-run gulag are uneasy about the inmates' legal status
Julian Borger in Guantanamo Bay
Monday September 9, 2002
The Guardian Nothing quite embodies America's transformation since September 11 as the orderly array of metal roofs on the cell blocks at Camp Delta gleaming in the Caribbean sun.
A hundred yards from the sea, they look like roofs of some tropical factory with their barrel-shaped fans as neatly spaced as chimneys. But in reality they cover something that would have been hard to conceive of only a year ago - a US-run gulag for foreign captives held indefinitely without being charged or even formally identified.
Camp Delta, a camp within a camp at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, is a measure of how much America has changed. Yet because it is perched on a remote corner of Cuba, out of bounds to all but a few thousand troops and specially vetted service workers, the mutation has gone mostly unseen by the American people.
Inside, there are 598 detainees from the "war on terror" from 38 countries. They include seven British inmates, swept up in the clash of civilisations that erupted last October when the US and its allies took on the Taliban.
The US argues that since the detainees were not part of any regular army and did not observe "the laws and customs of war" they are "enemy combatants" rather than prisoners of war, implying that they do not have all the rights assigned to POWs under the Geneva conventions.
Washington, however, insists that they are being treated just as well. Critics, who include Amnesty International and the UN, say the detainees' status can only be determined by an independent tribunal, not the Pentagon. They add that POWs are supposed to be released when hostilities end. In the war on terror, that may never happen.
Camp Delta is smarter and better built than its improvised predecessor, Camp X-Ray, which was made-up of cages in a heat-trap valley, with no ventilation. The new complex, which has cost more than $30m for just over 600 cells, benefits from sea breezes and fans. Conditions have improved since images of hooded, shackled prisoners in metal cages triggered international concern. The International Committee of the Red Cross is allowed daily access to the camp and the prisoners, and has declared itself satisfied with the cooperation of the military authorities.
In recent months, camp guards report, there have been 30 incidents of inmates trying to harm themselves, and four of those have been classified as suicide attempts.
Interrogation sessions take place in a cell block inside the compound, and are carried out by Joint Task Force 170, a collection of CIA, FBI and military intelligence officers assembled to pump the inmates for information.
No one at the camp would comment on what was being gleaned from the questioning, but leaks in Washington have suggested there are no inmates of any importance from the al-Qaida hierarchy here, and that little usable intelligence is emerging.
Brigadier-General Rick Baccus, the camp commander, stresses that inmates are being treated decently. But as the months go by, the conditions at Camp Delta are increasingly besides the point, as attention focuses on Washington's persistence in describing the inmates as enemy combatants, and its insistence that Guantanamo Bay, an entirely US-run establishment, is outside the jurisdiction of US courts.
Gen Baccus suggests that these are questions for President Bush. "Clearly there's some concern in terms of whether or not, and how, any people might be classified in terms of enemy combatant." Coming from the chief jailer, it reflects a growing unease among the officers here that they are policing a prison camp that feels distinctly un-American.