WASHINGTON: Guantanamo detainees, some of whom were held in open air cages when they arrived hooded and handcuffed ten years ago at the US naval base in Cuba, still endure harsh confinement, in most cases without charges or trial.
At Guantanamo Bay, whose turquoise waters can make one forget the US terrorism suspects held nearby, the prison is virtually invisible to the most of the inhabited areas of the base.
As its population dropped, the prison closed the first three camps where detainees brought from Afghanistan and Pakistan were held in narrow cells and subjected to mistreatment in interrogation rooms.
Most of the 171 detainees who remain in Guantanamo, including 89 who are eligible for release, have been regrouped in two buildings designed along the lines of federal maximum security prisons.
“You follow the rules, you live in Camp Six. You don't follow the rules you live in Camp Five,” Colonel Donnie Thomas, who commands the prison's guard force, told AFP.
About 80 per cent of the detainees are massed behind the walls of Camp Six, a sort of alternate universe where one can observe, through one-way mirrors, prisoners in djellabas living together.
There, the detainees have access to 21 satellite television stations, 14 radio stations, and newspapers. They get quarterly phone calls with their families and have greater freedom to enter or leave their cells, to walk with their comrades, and to eat and pray together, Thomas told AFP.
But if they break the rules, they are sent to neighbouring Camp Five, donning the famous orange jumpsuits reserved for the disciplinary quarters, and confined to narrow cells and allowed outside of them for only two hours a day.
“Camp Five is the hardest,” Saber Lahmar, an Algerian who was freed from Guantanamo in 2009 told AFP. “You don't walk, you don't budge, you don't talk. It's forbidden.”
That's not to mention the sleep deprivation, with neon lights blazing 24 hours a day and air conditioning kept at bone chilling temperatures.
At “Five Echo,” an extension of Camp Five, detentions conditions are even more “abysmal,” said David Remes, a lawyer for 17 detainees, including 14 Yemenis.
“The cells are half the size of the cells in other parts of Camp Five. One has to be a contortionist to pray or use the toilet. The place was designed by fiends,” he told AFP, calling it “a return to the early days of the camps, when brutality and sadism were the order of the day.”
For this lawyer, who says he has made at least 3,000 visits to Guantanamo, the biggest burden today is the obstacles placed upon the defence. All notes, all mail must pass through military censors, and it often takes weeks to get them back.
The censors have blocked testimony from leaving the prison, and even classified as secret a poem written by one of Remes' clients, evidently thinking that “something in the poem that could threaten the national security if it became public,” he said.
The detainees are in “a black hole,” without charges or trial, without knowing what comes next, said Andy Worthington, author of “The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison.”
While the most brutal interrogation methods appear to have been abandoned, there are still hunger strikes and indefinite imprisonment of people held on little evidence, he said, arguing that “no more than a handful have done significant things.”
In fact, about 15 so-called “high value” prisoners, including five inmates accused of the September 11, 2001 attacks, are incarcerated in a separate Camp Seven.
But no one in Guantanamo will talk about Camp Seven, a fortress where even the lawyers are persona non grata.