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Conditions at Guantánamo Under Scrutiny

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Last week, the Associated Press reported that officials at Guantánamo, stung by lawyers criticism of conditions in a disciplinary block known as Five Echo, had fought back against claims that the cells are too small to be regarded as humane and that the toilets are inadequate, the lights are too bright, and the air in the cells is foul.

A photo released to the AP showed what appeared to be a claustrophobically tiny cell. A military spokesman conceded that the cells in Five Echo are only half the size of the cells in the nearby Camp Five, and that they have a squat toilet in the floor, instead of a standard prison toilet found elsewhere in the prison.

David Remes, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who represents three men who have been held in Five Echo, described the camp as violating the Geneva Conventions and called it a throwback to the bad old days at Guantánamo.

Some of those still being held might dispute the implication that these are the good old days: the 171 men still held are, for the most part, detained without charge or trial in a facility that still reflects the Bush administrations arrogant disregard for the law, however much the Obama administration may have tweaked conditions to allow prisoners regarded as cooperative to spend some of their time socializing and, occasionally, to talk on the phone to their families.

The remaining prisoners are still not allowed family visits, unlike those convicted of the most horrendous crimes and held in prisons on the U.S. mainland. Although the Obama administration has conceded that it wishes to release or does not wish to permanently detain 89 of the remaining 171 prisoners, they are effectively indistinguishable from the 82 others recommended for trials or for indefinite detention with periodic reviews because of obstruction by Congress, by the administration itself, and by the courts, which have made releasing any of the men almost impossible.

Lawmakers have specifically prevented the release of any prisoner unless the defense secretary signs a waiver indicating that there is no chance that any freed person will be able to engage in any act of recidivism a condition recently described by Jeh Johnson, the Pentagons senior lawyer, as onerous and near impossible to satisfy.

Moreover, 58 Yemenis are still held because of an unprincipled moratorium on releasing any Yemenis that was introduced by Obama in January 2010, after it was discovered that the failed Christmas 2009 plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen, and because the D.C. Circuit Court has rewritten the rules of detention on ideological grounds, bringing the law into disrepute, but also ensuring that no prisoner can leave should the lower courts grant him his habeas corpus petition.

For those still held, Guantánamo is, therefore, ever closer to being the black hole conceived by the Bush administration. In any other prison, inmates are sentenced and are released at the end of their sentences, or, if they are to be held for the rest of their lives, are at least told by a judge that they will be serving life without parole.

Even so, and with the proviso that the whole of Guantánamo still constitutes a uniquely disturbing example of arbitrary, indefinite detention, conditions in Five Echo do appear to be noticeably worse, in terms of discomfort, than conditions in general in Guantánamo. Officials claimed that, as a punishment block, it was by its nature a worse place to be imprisoned than in the communal blocks, where most detainees at Guantánamo are now held, but they disputed the claim that it violated the Geneva Conventions. Army Colonel Donnie Thomas, the commander of the guard force, said, It is safe, humane, and meets all the regulations although military spokesmen always say that.

Lawyers told the AP that they did not believe any photos of the unit had been released previously, and that the military had been secretive about Five Echo, which was created in 2007 as an overflow disciplinary section. According to Colonel Thomas, it is now used as an extension of Camp Five. It was also noted that it has not been included in media tours.

Camp Five is a maximum-security block, modeled on the Miami Correctional Facility, a state prison in Bunker Hill, Indiana. It opened in May 2004, and its solid-walled cells once housed up to a hundred prisoners regarded as having the greatest intelligence value, according to a report in the Miami Herald. Now, however, the block holds only 25 prisoners at most. Segregated in a top-tier block, what the Herald described as a Convicts Corridor, are the four prisoners (including the Canadian, and former child prisoner Omar Khadr) who have been convicted of war crimes or have agreed to plea deals in their trials by Military Commission. The AP explained that Camp Five was now largely used for detainees who attack a guard or otherwise violate the rules, and for those who are regarded as noncompliant.

The identities of the prisoners held in Camp Five were not disclosed. It is probable that they include up to a dozen men regarded by the authorities as significant prisoners, capable of influencing their fellow prisoners, and who were previously held in a special section in Camp Delta (where Camps One to Three were, but which is now closed) called One-Alpha. Colonel Thomas seemed to indicate that when he said, Quite frankly, detainees make the determination where they live. If they are compliant they live in Camp Six. If they are noncompliant they live in Camp Five.

In contrast to Camp Five, Camp Six, which opened in December 2006 and was modeled on a maximum-security facility in Lenawee County, Michigan, holds the majority of the remaining 171 prisoners. Since August 2010, it has been the block where prisoners are allowed to socialize, with up to 20 hours a day of TV or radio broadcast through headsets, as the Miami Herald described it, adding that each of the 22-cell pods was organized according to broadcast preference with two pods having exclusively Quranic radio broadcasts from Saudi Arabia and another made up predominantly of Yemeni soccer fans who dominated in matches in the communal recreation yard.

The AP noted that the prisoners in Camp Six are free to congregate with each other in a communal setting for 20 hours a day, and they have access to games, classes, and 20 channels of cable television. It also noted that the authorities claimed that the creation of the communal facilities was responsible for a sharp drop in prisoners protests, hunger strikes, and assaults on guards.

Discussing Five Echo, Colonel Thomas declined to disclose the criteria for its use. He said it was empty last week, although he could resume using it at any time at his discretion. He refused to say when it had last held prisoners, but David Remes explained that it had recently held Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, whom he represents and who is one of the dozen or so prisoners regarded as being particularly influential. He stated that he drew a diagram of the cells and collected other details following a meeting with Aamer, but the notes were deemed classified by a government review team and he is not permitted to release them.

Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer and a law professor at the City University of New York, who also represents Aamer, said he had described abysmal conditions in Five Echo. He explained that the squat toilet is difficult to use, there are foul odors, bright lights shine on detainees, and air conditioners keep it extremely cold. Kassem said, It is decrepit, filthy, and disgusting. Those are the words he used to describe it. He added that Aamer also told him the cells were not large enough to allow prisoners to pray and that the conditions were akin to those of a Supermax prison in the United States.

Explaining the circumstances in which the other prisoners are held, the Miami Herald noted that 15 or 16 high-value detainees, previously held in secret CIA prisons, where the use of torture was routine, are held in Camp Seven, which the media have never been allowed to visit. Five Uighurs (Muslims from Chinas oppressed Xinjiang province), who are awaiting an offer of a new home, are held in Camp Iguana, once used for three child prisoners, where they can get greater privileges, including more phone calls, a prayer room, a Wii, and a view of the Caribbean.

No figures have been made available regarding the number of prisoners held in the Behavioral Health Unit adjacent to the hospital, which serves as the psychiatric ward for mentally ill or otherwise troubled detainees. It seems certain that it must be used to house some prisoners whose long detention has led to their complete mental collapse. I find it disquieting that according to the Miami Herald between three and five prisoners live permanently in Camp Echo for reasons the military will not explain.

A 24-cell block, Camp Echo is used for meetings between lawyers and their clients, but its cells were used from 2003 to 2004 to hold prisoners in total isolation who were facing Military Commission trials. It is also known that Shaker Aamer was held there for 18 months in total isolation from September 2005 to March 2007. For Camp Echo still to be used for detention, and for no explanation of its use to have been provided, is therefore genuinely disturbing.

The conditions in Five Echo are therefore just one small part of the problems particularly involving indefinite detention and the hidden prisoners in Camp Echo, Camp Five, and Camp Seven facing those still held in Guantánamo as the tenth anniversary of the opening of the prison approaches, on January 11, 2012.

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    Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and serves as policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.