Conditions At Guantánamo Under Scrutiny – OpEd


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, 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, and a military spokesman conceded that the cells in “Five Echo” are only half the size of the cells in the nearby Camp Five, and also “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 held might dispute the inference that these are the “good old days,” when the 171 men still held are, for the most part, detained without charge or trial, in a facility that still reflects the Bush administration’s 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, allowing them 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 US mainland, and 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 these 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 individual will be able engage in any act of recidivism — a condition recently described by Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s senior lawyer, as “onerous and near impossible to satisfy.”

In addition, 58 Yemenis are still held because of an unprincipled moratorium on releasing any Yemenis that was introduced by President Obama in January 2010, after it was discovered that the failed Christmas 2009 plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen, and 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 through having their habeas corpus petitions granted by the lower courts.

For those still held, Guantánamo is, therefore, closer to being the black hole conceived by the Bush administration than any other prison, where 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 Col. Donnie Thomas, the commander of the guard force, said, “It is safe, humane and meets all the regulations” — although military spokespeople 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,” but now, according to Col. Thomas, is 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 only holds 25 prisoners at most, including, in a top tier block, described by the Herald as a “Convicts Corridor,” segregating 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 those who are regarded as “noncompliant.”

The identities of the prisoners held in Camp Five were not disclosed, although it is probable that they include up to a dozen men, regarded by the authorities as significant prisoners, capable of influencing their fellow prisoners, 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.” Col. Thomas seemed to indicate this 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 also modeled on a maximum-security facility in Lenawee County, Michigan, holds the majority of the remaining 171 prisoners, and has, since August 2010, 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,” and 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,” Col. Thomas “declined to disclose the criteria” for its use, but 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, who 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,” explaining 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 said 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 has never been allowed to visit, and that five Uighurs (Muslims from China’s 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,” although it seems certain that it must be used to house some prisoners whose long detention has led to their complete mental collapse. The Miami Herald also noted, troublingly, that 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 in 2003-04 to hold prisoners in total isolation who were facing Military Commission trials, and 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.

On this basis, the conditions in “Five Echo” are 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 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison approaches, on January 11, 2012.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

2 thoughts on “Conditions At Guantánamo Under Scrutiny – OpEd

  • December 19, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    The really inhumane thing about the image of the cell was the isolation it implied. A cell that small wouldn’t really be a problem if the captive were allowed to spend the bulk of the day in the common room with other captives.

    A couple of years ago one US newspaper published an article comparing the treatment of captives cleared for release with the treatment of Italian internees during World War 2. Some of those Italian internees were given day passes, were allowed to go out, and work, eat in restaurants, with the money they earned.

    The staff at Guantanamo ballooned in size, once the DoD decided to detain captives there. And the number of people working there does not seem to have shrunk much, even though the number of captives is about a quarter of what it was at its height.

    2,000 guest workers work at Guantanamo, non-Americans who fill the non-military jobs. They cook most of the meals. They do laundry. Guantanamo hires or at one time hired Jamaican firemen to fight the fires. There was an article about them in the weekly newspaper published down there.

    I was going to write that I don’t understand why the Obama administration won’t allow the Uyghurs, and all the other men cleared for release, to hold down some of those non-military jobs. When I read the Uyghurs’ testimony, several of them described, in detail, their hopes of finding work in a Turkish leather working factory, one that had hired Uyghurs in the past, where their language was close enough to Turkish they could get by.

    They were prepared to work hard. I am sure they would really appreciate a chance to work, to send some money home to their relatives, to get some fresh air, even if they were only clearing brush, mowing lawns, or clearing Guantanamo’s beaches of detritus.

    I was going to write I don’t know why the Obama administration isn’t giving the men cleared for release a job — except I do know why. Cowardice. The Republicans would go crazy over “terrorists” being treated with kid gloves — ignoring that most of those cleared for release were never more than innocent bystanders.

    Still, so long as they can’t be sent home, I think they offered work, on the base. The four Uyghurs sent to Bermuda got jobs working as groundskeepers at a golf course, where they were exemplary workers.

  • December 19, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    I think we know at least two of the captives in camp echo. Andy didn’t you publish new details about Tariq al Sawah. Didn’t newly emerged details say he had denounced jihadism shortly after his capture, and he and another captive were held separately from the other captives, in isolation, for their own safety, because they had provided information against so many of them? I thought I read, in those new details, that the two men shared a pod in camp echo.

    The DoD published some images of a cell in camp echo. For any readers who can’t access the URL, it contains three pictures, one of a small outside exercise yard, and two images inside, showing a meeting area, where a captive might meet with their lawyer, walled off with mesh from a large modern shower, and a small sleeping area.

    One purpose of Camp Echo is a place isolated from the main camp for captives to meet with their lawyers.

    The images show that the pods are large enough to be comfortable for one or two captives — if they have to be kept isolated for their own protection. The captive in Camp Iguana are the only other captives with their own shower.

    From what I have read Camp Echo consists of multiple stand alone pods like the one illustrated in the URL.

    If I am not mistaken there have been reports that some captives were punished by being isolated in Camp Echo, implying that the pods were far enough apart a captive couldn’t be heard if they screamed in one. Presumably, if it were being used as a punishment cell the captive coudl be locked into the sleeping area, with no access to the shower, exercise yard or meeting room.

    I don’t think this facility was built when Abdurahman Khadr was kept isolated from the Red Cross and other captives, after camp authorities feared he might blow his cover as a CIA mole. So, I presume he was kept somewhere similar.


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