Guantanamo: Three years on

Today is the anniversary of the founding of America's prison camp for 'enemy combatants', And despite evidence of systematic abuse and widespread international condemnation it looks set to stay open
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The Independent US

Three years ago, the world caught its first glimpse of a new breed of prisoners, captured in a new sort of war. They were shackled, orange-suited figures, seen through telephoto lenses, arriving in a makeshift jail on an American base on a tropical island, 8,000 miles from where they had been captured on the battlefield of Afghanistan.

According to US officials at the time, they were "the worst of the worst." They had been chained to the seats of their transport plane for the journey half way round the world because "these are people who would gnaw through hydraulic lines on a C-17 to bring it down," General Richard Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, explained in an interview on 10 January 2002, as the first 20 prisoners arrived at Guantanamo Bay in south-eastern Cuba.

Today the "the worst of the worst" better describes the prison than those who are confined there. At its height, Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo housed about 660 detainees. The number has fallen to around 550 today, from 42 countries. The place and manner of their detention, however, has become the embodiment of much that the world detests in President George Bush's global "war on terror". "Guantanamo has become an icon of lawlessness," the human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement marking Camp X-Ray's third anniversary, "a symbol of the US government's attempts to put itself above the law."

Naturally, that is not how the Bush administration sees it. No official spokesman will admit that Guantanamo was a mistake that has besmirched the US image around the world. The Pentagon claims that detainees have provided valuable information, which has helped thwart several planned terrorist strikes. If they were not under lock and key at Guantanamo, says Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, many inmates might be plotting such attacks, or back fighting US troops in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere.

But many of these claims do not survive scrutiny. Privately, Pentagon officials admit that most detainees are low-level figures. Outside experts query the intelligence value of many prisoners, insignificant figures now behind bars for two years or more.

In the meantime, the charges of prisoner abuse and torture multiply. With each one, it becomes more apparent that wittingly or unwittingly, Guantanamo was a test bed for the techniques - and incubator of the mentality - that the world discovered in the horrific prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib.

From the outset the US authorities insisted that the detainees were not conventional soldiers, but "enemy combatants" who did not qualify as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Nonetheless, the Pentagon said, they would be treated as if they were. Accounts by those who have been released from Guantanamo, as well as leaked reports by an alarmed FBI, suggest otherwise.

Prisoners have not just been denied effective legal representation. According to Amnesty, interrogation techniques used include stress positions, isolation, hooding, sensory deprivation and terrifying dogs. Alarmed FBI agents who visited Guantanamo have reported prolonged use of shackling, loud music and strobe lights, and dogs.

In the latest allegation, reported in Newsweek today, one FBI agent said he saw a detainee sitting on the floor of an interrogation cell with an Israeli flag draped around him while he was bombarded by loud music and a strobe light.

Former prisoners have told even more shocking tales, of being tightly chained to the concrete floor of their cells for 15 hours, and of savage beatings handed out by guards known as the Extreme Reaction Force.

In shades of Abu Ghraib, devout Muslim prisoners were humiliated by naked prostitutes parading themselves in front of them.

Various investigations are in progress. But the fate of the detainees remains murky. The US Supreme Court last year rejected the absurd claim by the Pentagon that Guantanamo Bay (though leased in perpetuity by Cuba to the US) was not technically on American soil, and therefore foreigners held there had no right to bring cases before a US civil court of law.

The authorities countered by promising to speed up so-called "Combatant Status Review Tribunals," consisting of panels of military officers, to examine each detainee's case. As of now, four low-level prisoners have been sent for trial by military commissions. But these proceedings are stalled, after a federal judge ruled against the commissions. The US government is now appealing.

The tangle exasperates even some Republican supporters of the war against terror. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina's junior senator, spoke last week of the damaging "legal chaos" surrounding Guantanamo Bay. The US, said Mr Graham, had "lost its way" by playing fast and loose with the law.

Few observers would disagree. But Guantanamo will not soon disappear. Plans have been announced for a $25m (£13m) jail to hold 200 prisoners, and for a permanent guard force to replace the 330 infantry troops there now. Like the "war on terror" itself, America's most notorious jail for terrorists is here to stay.

Shameful regime of detention without trial

2001 7 OCTOBER: American and British forces invade Afghanistan.

2002 10 JANUARY: The first al-Qa'ida prisoners are moved from Afghan detention centres to the Guantanamo Bay US naval base in Cuba. Britons are found to be among the captives.

25 JANUARY: White House counsel Alberto Gonzales writes, in a memo to President Bush, that the fight against terrorism "renders obsolete Geneva's (Convention's) strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners, and renders quaint some of its provisions".

27 JANUARY: The family of a Camp X-Ray detainee, Shafiq Rasul, 24, from Tipton, West Midlands, lobby for him to be returned to Britain. He is there with Asif Iqbal, 20, also from Tipton, and Feroz Abbasi, 22, from Croydon, Surrey.

7 FEBRUARY: President Bush signs an order declaring that he has the authority to suspend compliance with the Geneva Conventions and reserves the right to do so "in this and future conflicts".

19 FEBRUARY: A legal team for Mr Iqbal, 20, and Mr Rasul, 24, file papers at a court in Washington DC calling on the US government either to justify their detention by bringing charges, or to free them.

6 MARCH: Lawyers for Mr Abbasi begin proceedings at the High Court seeking a judicial review of the Government's co-operation with the United States.

15 MARCH: Mr Abbasi loses his High Court battle against the Government over the conditions of his detention at Camp X-Ray.

1 JULY: Three senior judges give permission for a full hearing of Mr Abbasi's claims that the Government is not protecting his rights while he is held by the US at Camp X-Ray.

10 OCTOBER: The US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, left, says that "a relatively small number" of men will be freed from Camp X-Ray.

6 NOVEMBER: The Court of Appeal rules that the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, cannot be compelled to intervene over Mr Abbasi.

2003 26 FEBRUARY: Moazzam Begg, 35, from Birmingham, is made a detainee at Guantanamo Bay after being arrested in Pakistan.

17 JUNE: Freed Guantanamo Bay prisoners say they had tried to commit suicide due to the draconian conditions. Several of the 35 Afghans and Pakistanis released say that while they were physically unharmed they were subjected to psychological abuse by being confined to tiny cells and being kept uncertain about the future.

4 JULY: It is revealed that two Britons could be among the first detainees to face trial by secretive military tribunals. Mr Begg and Mr Abbasi are on an initial list of six who could face military commissions.

18 JULY: The US agrees to suspend the threat of secret military hearings against the nine Britons being held at Guantanamo Bay.

20 NOVEMBER: Following talks at Downing Street with President Bush, right, Tony Blair says the fate of the British detainees at Guantanamo Bay will be resolved "soon".

25 NOVEMBER: One of Britain's most senior judges condemns the US for a "monstrous failure of justice" over how it holds detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Lord Steyn says prisoners are being held in a state of "utter lawlessness".

2004 19 FEBRUARY: The Foreign Office says five of the nine British prisoners are to be released. They are named as Ruhal Ahmed, Tarek Dergoul, Jamal Udeen, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul.

7 MARCH: The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, criticises the treatment of the remaining detainees by the US authorities.

9 MARCH: Mr Blunkett confirms the five Britons have been released. They arrive in London later the same day to be questioned. Jamal Udeen is soon released without charge.

10 MARCH: Tarek Dergoul, Shafiq Rasul, Ruhal Ahmed and Asif Iqbal are released without charge.

10 MAY: The International Committee of the Red Cross accuses the US government of using methods "tantamount to torture" on detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

22 JUNE: The US Justice Dept announces that it is withdrawing legal memos of 2002. These gave a narrow definition of torture which provided legal arguments for US personnel to escape prosecution under anti-torture laws, and also argued that the President's wartime authority superseded international laws and treaties.

26 AUGUST: The first US military tribunal since the Second World War opens in Guantanamo Bay. Salim Ahmed Hamdan is charged with conspiring to commit terrorist acts with Osama bin Laden.

14 OCTOBER: Three months after the US Supreme Court rules that the hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay have a right to challenge their imprisonment in US courts, none has appeared so far. Most have not been allowed to speak to their lawyers.

9 NOVEMBER: A US district judge, James Robertson, rules that the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals are illegal.

12 DECEMBER: Lawyers acting for four British prisoners in Cuba say they are "losing their sanity" after being held for more than two years in solitary confinement. They urge Mr Blair to intervene.

16 DECEMBER: Law lords rule that foreign prisoners being held at Belmarsh and Woodhall prisons, described as "Britain's Guantanamo Bay", are being detained illegally.

21 DECEMBER: Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union show that FBI agents repeatedly complained about torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to their superiors.

2005 2 JANUARY: The Bush administration is preparing to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely without trial, replacing Guantanamo Bay with permanent prisons. Congress will be asked for $25m (£13m) to build a new facility.