Inside Gitmo, no signs of shutting down

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — The man – bearded, dressed in white – approaches the fenced-off, glassed-off door to his cell block.

“Solve our problems,” reads the sign he holds up above his head, black block letters on white background. “Respond to our requests.”

He’s silent, or at least appears so behind the layers separating him from the cluster of journalists he’s approaching.

Nevertheless, the carefully orchestrated calm of the tour teeters for a moment. It’s the closest the choreographed walk through two Guantanamo Bay prison camps comes to veering off course into the unscripted.

“All right, that’s it, we should go,” say several guards gathered around the half-dozen reporters.

And the tour moves along, through the rotunda inside Guantanamo Bay’s Camp VI.

The detention centre, built in 2006 and modelled after New Jersey’s Warren County detention centre, was retrofitted as a maximum-security facility, then renovated once again for “compliant” detainees: The fencing that separated each single-person cell from an indoor communal area is gone; cell blocks are being renovated and fitted with sound panels to mitigate the echoing sound.

Camp VI and Camp IV, which hold the vast majority of Guantanamo’s remaining prisoners, are about half full, if that, with about 70 detainees each.

That’s far fewer than each had a few years ago, as Guantanamo slowly empties and prisoners are released or transferred. The U.S. naval base got a little emptier this week when Yemeni detainee Mohammed Odaini was transferred back to his home country after more than eight years of incarceration. Mr. Odaini, now 26, was ordered released in May by a U.S. District Court.

His release, the first Yemeni transfer since they were suspended after a botched bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas Day, brings the total number of Guantanamo detainees to 180. That’s far fewer than the almost 800 housed here at the detention centre’s population peak several years ago.

There’s no sign of Guantanamo shutting down in the near future. If anything, it is gearing up – notably for the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, preceded by that of Omar Khadr, 23, the base’s youngest detainee and only Canadian. Mr. Khadr threw his legal counsel into disarray when he fired his lawyers last week.

A trial for Mr. Khadr, charged with murder, attempted murder and supporting terrorism, who has been in U.S. custody since he was captured, bullet wounds in his chest, at age 15, could go forward as soon as next month. It’s expected to take up to six weeks, although even those in charge concede they’re largely improvising as they go along.

Certainly, in the hot, dusty sun of an afternoon tour, there’s nothing that gives off the appearance of a controversial detention centre whose very existence, let alone the military tribunals it’s carrying out, is contested worldwide.

If anything, the trial of Guantanamo detainees got an extra push of legitimacy Tuesday, when a U.S. judge ruled that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani’s trial could go ahead despite his being held in Guantanamo for more than five years: His right to a speedy trial hadn’t been compromised, Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled.

The growing length of time people are being held without trial is one of many factors human-rights advocates argue should render them ineligible for trial: Jennifer Turner, an observer with the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that the eight years Mr. Khadr has spent incarcerated should make him ineligible to stand trial. His prosecutors argue that’s nonsense.

But the passage of time also makes for more compliant detainees, Lt.-Col. McManus says: The camp has gone from about 40 per cent “compliant” detainees to 90 per cent, he says. There are fewer than a dozen detainees in Camp V, the highest-security detention centre, which can hold 100.

“Compliance has gotten much, much better since I’ve been here.”

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