Inmates called to prayer in chain-link and concrete jail

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The Independent US

It was well before dawn yesterday morning when Lieutenant Abuhena Mohammad Saiful-Islam strode up to the gates of Camp X-Ray, a bullhorn in his hand.

Lifting it to his mouth, he introduced himself before breaking into the Islamic call to prayer: "God is great, God is great," the US Navy Muslim cleric said in Arabic, his voice carrying in the morning stillness. "There is no one worthy of worship but God."

Accompanied by two guards, Lt Saiful then entered the gates of the prison, passing through the security fences and approaching the cells where the detainees were held. They were given time to carry out their ritual ablutions and then the lieutenant knelt and for the first time since their incarceration led the prisoners in prayer.

By daylight it was possible to catch a glimpse of the prisoners through the fences, flashes of orange, visible through the wire and chain link, sat still, as though they realised they were going nowhere in a hurry. If that was so, they were almost certainly correct.

"That prison is 100 per cent secure. There is no doubt about it," grinned Colonel Terry Carrico as he lent against the back of a military truck, looking towards the fences. "They are going nowhere."

The prison – the security of which the warden, Col Carrico, was so boastful – is Camp X-Ray, the hastily-constructed jail of chain-link and concrete where the prisoners in their orange jumpsuits are being held.

Camp X-Ray sits thrown together in a shallow valley surrounded by low hills dotted with sparse vegetation, scorched by the Caribbean sun. In all it measures just 100m by 100, a tiny plot on a base 45 square miles.

At the moment it looks like a building site. As well as the work to erect more temporary cages, each measuring 8ft by 8ft, military personnel are putting up wooden interrogation huts at the front. There are seven watch-towers, each manned by a soldier equipped with binoculars and a semi-automatic rifle, one of which is always trained on the prisoners.

At the far side, a green and white sign in Arabic points in the direction of Mecca. Large, black Turkey buzzards ride on the warm up-draughts of air. It has the feeling of somewhere recently created, temporary and not entirely well thought through.

And yet this prison, less than two miles from the 17 miles of perimeter fencing and land mines which marks the border with Cuba, has created a controversy out of all scale to its size over the treatment of those men in orange.

It is part small-town America, part Twilight Zone. Every night the community of around 2,800 flocks to an open air cinema to watch the latest releases while at lunchtime, there are similar crowds at the only outpost of the fast-food empire of Ronald McDonald on all of Cuba, for the same old burgers and fries. (Unlike the McDonald's restaurants in places like Miami, there are no Latin-themed menus here).

But what Guantanamo does have is isolation. Deep water surrounds the base on three sides while to the north Cuba has said it will return any prisoners who do somehow manage to escape. In essence the base was considered the "least worst place" to house the prisoners.

So are the prisoners being treated fairly? This week the military went to great lengths to show visiting reporters the humane treatment the prisoners receive, even revealing the so-called "hygiene and comfort" items that are handed out. These included halal prepared meals such as chicken and noodles.

For clothing the men are provided with the bright orange, short-sleeved jumpsuits.

The prisoners are also given shampoo, soap, a copy of the Koran, two towels and two buckets – one for washing and one to use an emergency toilet. ("If they need to go to the bathroom they give the number two sign," said staff sergeant Monty Webster, a straight-faced military policeman, as he held up two fingers by way of indication. "Number one is you have to pee. Number two – that's shit. We get to them as quickly as we can... who'd want to do a number two in a bucket?")

Yet for the casual visitor, as opposed to the inspection teams from the International Committee of the Red Cross: from a distance of 200 metres is it impossible to tell whether these prisoners are well-treated or not.

You can hear about the dedication of the soldiers, you can listen to Col Carrico tell you how he tries to forget about September 11 as he walks between the cages, you can pick up the jumpsuits and you can even taste the food, but ultimately you can make little assessment about people to whom you cannot speak and whom you cannot understand.

So instead you end up simply staring at them as they sit there, barely moving in the still heat, separated from yourself by three layers of fencing and a life that has been utterly different. For their part, the prisoners stare back.