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Plight of 650 'detainees' at Guantánamo sparks debate over future of naval base
CubaNews / April 2003

By Larry Luxner

"Welcome to Camp Delta,” said U.S. Army Col. Adolph McQueen, as he cheerfully greeted two reporters at the outer gates of the prison camp housing 650 unhappy captives of America’s war on terrorism.

The bright blue waters of the Caribbean beckoned just beyond the prison’s edge, yet once inside Camp Delta, the only colors around were tan, beige and the camouflage green of the guards’ uniforms and M-16 rifles.

Occasionally, we’d see a few bearded inmates in their orange jumpsuits and black prayer caps, being escorted from one place to another.

All 650 of these “unlawful enemy combatants” are alleged to be members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Yet unlike POWs, none have access to lawyers, nor have any been formally charged.

“We leave this block empty so we can refine our training techniques,” explained McQueen of Detroit, as he dispersed a group of 15 or 20 soldiers engaged in a top-secret training exercise.

McQueen proudly showed us a heavy metal mesh “detention unit” measuring 8 feet long, 7 feet wide and 8 feet high. These units consist of a metal bed frame raised off the floor, a Turkish toilet and a stainless-steel sink — “lower to the ground to help accommodate foot-washing for Muslim prayer needs,” according to a fact sheet.

An arrow indelibly stenciled on each bed points the direction to Mecca and the exact distance to Islam’s holiest city: 12,793 kilometers.

It’s not clear if Camp Delta’s inmates know they’re at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but one thing is certain: unless they cooperate with their interrogators, they won’t be getting out of here anytime soon.

“Every detainee in this camp is a threat to the United States,” declared Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, in an interview with CubaNews. “We have already exploited quite a bit of intelligence. We are in the business of looking for golden threads and links, and every day we get something new.”

As the base long known as Gitmo marks its 100th anniversary this year, critics warn that it may become a permanent dumping ground for anyone the Bush administration wishes to permanently deprive of judicial review.

“The United States has devised a criminal jurisdiction whereby we can lease property anywhere in the world and create a Devil’s Island where individuals have no access to the U.S. court system to determine whether they’re being held legally,” charged Bill Butler, chairman emeritus of the International Commission of Jurists.

Added human-rights attorney Michael Rat-ner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York: “From the U.S. point of view, Guantánamo has a lot of advantages. It’s close to the United States, so they can send personnel back and forth all the time.

“Unlike military bases in other countries, the U.S. has complete jurisdiction. There’s no other lease like that, and there’s no access by reporters unless the government decides to let you in. Fourthly, nobody has any rights, so the military can do whatever it wants.”

Both lawyers spoke at a Mar. 5 seminar in Washington focusing on the future of Gitmo — the oldest overseas Navy base in the world, and the only one in a Communist country.

A lease agreement signed between the U.S. and Cuban governments on Feb. 21, 1903, established the legal basis for Gitmo’s existence: In exchange for helping Cuba win its independence from Spain and an annual payment of $2,000 — later raised to $4,085 — Cuba granted the United States 45 sq miles of land at Guantánamo Bay for the Navy to use as a coaling and refueling station for its ships.

Under the 1903 treaty, says Washington lawyer Robert Muse, who specializes in Cuba matters, “it was virtually a conveyance of national territory to the U.S. It was perpetual, and without any effective limitation.”

Since 1959, Fidel Castro has refused to deposit the annual $4,085 checks sent by the U.S. Treasury, insisting that doing so would indicate acceptance of U.S. sovereignty.

But over time, argued Muse, the Cubans themselves “have become complicit in U.S. sovereignty over the base,” weakening any future claim Cuba might have on Gitmo. In the mid-1990s, more than 45,000 Cuban and Haitian refugees were intercepted on the high seas and brought to Gitmo for incarceration before being resettled in the U.S. or sent back home. Yet such activities, said Muse, were clearly “inconsistent with the use of the base as a coaling or naval facility.”

In January 2002, he said, the U.S. began transporting prisoners to Cuba, “including Kuwaitis who claim to have been in Afgha-nistan under the auspices of Muslim charities and Pakistanis who claim to have been abducted by North-ern Alliance warlords and sold into captivity.”

At that time, the Castro government — eager to show the world it was participating in the war on terrorism — issued a statement saying that “although the transfer of foreign war prisoners by the U.S. government does not abide by the provisions that regulated its inception, we shall not set any obstacles to the development of the operation, and we are willing to cooperate.”

As a result, says Muse, “the U.S. [now] exercises sufficient sovereignty over that territory for constitutional protections to apply.”

Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, argues that the 1903 treaty, amended in 1934, allows the United States to use Gitmo as a coaling station and for naval operations — and nothing else.

“Guantánamo was acquired essentially as a naval station so U.S. vessels could protect the approaches to the Panama Canal,” said Smith, a critic of U.S. policy. “But we have long since given up the canal, and U.S. naval vessels certainly don’t use coal anymore.

“During the Cold War,” added the former diplomat, “no American president could consider returning the base to Cuban control, given that Cuba was a Soviet military ally. But with the Cold War over, the principal reason for hanging onto Gitmo disappears. The base is at this point of no real military use.”

Tell that to Capt. Bob Buehn, commanding officer at the sprawling naval installation.

“We will continue to maintain the lease because the base is of value to us, particularly with the JTF here,” he told CubaNews in an interview. “It’s a key part of the global war on terrorism, and this mission would be difficult to do anywhere else.”

Buehn added: “One of our missions is forward presence, and if Roosevelt Roads Naval Base [in Puerto Rico] closes, that would leave Guantánamo as the only U.S. base in the Caribbean. We’d be the only game in town.”

Buehn, whose tour of duty at Gitmo ended Mar. 27, says that despite war in Iraq and the presence of 650 possibly dangerous men from 42 countries at Camp Delta, he’s seen little tension between the U.S. Marines and Cuban “Frontier Brigade” that patrol the fence line.

“There’s been no visible change in our relationship since the arrival of the detainees,” said Buehn, who for the last three years has met his Cuban counterpart, Brig. Gen. Solar Hernández, on the third Friday of every month for informal talks.

“We alternate — one month on their side of the fence, one month on our side. These talks are strictly about local issues,” he said. “If we need to do road work along the fence line, we tell them so they don’t wonder what we’re doing. We have an international channel that goes through our part of the bay, so we share information about maritime safety and marine traffic. We also discuss natural disasters like brush fires and hurricanes. This helps keeps tensions low and information flowing.”

Camp Delta, parts of which are still under construction, replaces the crude temporary chain-link cells at Camp X-Ray five miles to the north, where the detainees were originally confined upon their arrival in Cuba.

The new 816-unit compound is located in a remote corner of the base — which is itself off-limits unless you’re with the military or on official business. The only road leading there is blocked by orange barriers that slow down all approaching vehicles. Marines armed with M-16s check cars and trucks for explosives and scrutinize the IDs of all passengers. “No Photography” signs appear every 20 feet along the outer fence, and anyone caught snapping pictures of forbidden subjects risks having his cameras and film confiscated.

Camp Delta cost $42 million to construct, but Miller wouldn’t discuss the prison’s operating budget, citing security considerations.

Even so, it’s hard to imagine any of these detainees breaking free. The camp is surrounded by guard towers, powerful spotlights and four layers of 20-foot-high fence topped with razor wire. Troops patrol the facility’s perimeter fence in Humvees or on foot.

Even if a prisoner were able to escape, his bright-orange jumpsuit would give him away. And Castro has vowed to return any detainee caught on Cuban soil to U.S. authorities. Since their arrival, some 25 inmates have been sent back home, mostly to Afghanistan.

When asked how much longer Gitmo will host “illegal combatants,” Buehn replied that “this mission could last at least five years.”

Meanwhile, Camp Delta’s prisoners spend most of their time being interrogated or quietly reading the Koran in their cells. When being transported, the men are restrained with handcuffs and leg shackles and are always escorted by at least two guards.

The soldiers who actually watch over the detainees don’t know their names; the prisoners all go by numbers. Likewise, the guards hide their name tags with Velcro strips to protect themselves against possible retribution.

“We don’t engage in casual conversation with the detainees,” said Capt. Brian Pitts of the 132nd Military Police Company. “Soldiers are rotated on a regular basis, so they don’t get too close to them.”

Since the operation began, Camp Delta has seen 22 attempted suicides, with one resulting in serious injuries. According to Miller, at least 75 of the men suffer from mental illness.

Yet a good portion of these detainees are probably innocent, says attorney Ratner, who represented about 400 HIV-positive Haitian refugees detained at Gitmo during the 1990s.

“In some ways, the Guantánamo detainees are the lucky ones, because they’re not sitting in Diego García or Bagram [in Afghanistan],” he said. “We’ve had allegations of torture in those detention facilities, and the U.S. military has admitted to conduct which is cruel and inhuman.”

Last month, the Pentagon hinted that Iraqis who use civilians as human shields or otherwise violate the rules of war in Iraq could be shipped to Guantánamo — adding to the legal dilemma of what to do with the 650 inmates already languishing at Camp Delta.

“Gitmo might as well be on another planet, floating somewhere out there in space,” said Ratner. “It’s a lawless situation, and not one I, as a human-rights lawyer, find acceptable.”

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