The Guantanamo Bay prison camp - established after the terror attacks of 11 September and the war in Afghanistan - was meant to be a temporary detention centre, somewhere to hold the "worst of the worst".
Almost two years later, the camp has been transformed into a de facto permanent facility where 660 adults and three children are kept in a legal black hole, cut off from the outside world and with no idea whether they will ever be charged with a crime or released. Critics claim the prison, which operates with hardly any independent scrutiny, has become a live experiment in long-term interrogation where experts constantly seek to hone and improve their techniques.
"It's like it has become a cold storage facility," said Richard Bourke, a lawyer in Louisiana representing two Australian citizens who are among the prisoners. "You hear comments from the camp commander about how they are constantly improving their interrogation techniques. They are just experimenting in areas that interest them."
Guantanamo Bay and the nine Britons held there have become the focus of increasing tension between Britain and the US and will be a subject of talks between George Bush and Tony Blair this week.
It was announced in the summer that two of the Britons, Moazzam Begg, 35, and Feroz Abbasi, 23, were among six prisoners selected to be tried by military tribunals, a process outside the normal judicial process and without the protection usually offered to defendants. In this process Mr Bush would act in effect as the ultimate arbiter on what would happen to the prisoners if convicted.
Belatedly and with little apparent enthusiasm, the British Government has sought to obtain some safeguards for Mr Abbasi and Mr Begg. Until it was announced that they were to be placed before a tribunal, Britain did very little to help the nine, a position that was in stark contrast to the governments of other prisoners at Guantanamo, such as Sweden.
Although the prosecution has been officially put on hold, the prisoners' lawyers remain extremely worried. Louise Christian, a solicitor representing the family of Mr Abbasi, said last night: "I am very concerned that he has made some sort of confession. The military tribunal process is technically on hold - just this morning I received another letter from the [UK] Attorney General that repeated the US denial that there has been some sort of a deal. But I am concerned that a confession has obtained under conditions that amount to coercion. They have been interrogated for nearly two years without a lawyer being present."
Few critics claim that prisoners at Camp Delta, as the incarceration unit is known, suffer physical torture, though in the first six months of its operation interrogators used techniques known as "stress and duress" to intimidate and soften up their subjects. Such techniques include sleep deprivation, exposing prisoners to hot or cold conditions and making them sit or stand in uncomfortable positions.
But lawyers and activists say the prisoners - to whom the Bush administration refuses to grant the protection of the Geneva Conventions - face a form of psychological torture by being refused information about their future or access to legal advice. There are regular reports of suicide attempts among the prisoners and recently Commander Louis Louk, the officer in charge of the prison's hospital, revealed that one in five of the prisoners received medication for what he termed "clinical depression".
Against this backdrop the Bush administration received unprecedented criticism last month from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only non-state organisation permitted to visit the camp, which said its refusal to inform prisoners about their future was causing an intolerable situation. "The main concern for us is that the US authorities have effectively placed them beyond the law," said Amanda Williamson, an ICRC spokes-woman. "After more than 18 months of captivity, the internees have no idea about their fate, no means of recourse through any legal mechanism. They have been placed in a legal vacuum, a legal black hole. This, for the ICRC, is unacceptable."
Despite such criticism, the attitude of the US appears clear. While it has not yet charged a single prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay, there are no plans to release the majority of them soon. Although a handful of the oldest and most sick have been repatriated the US authorities are putting up long-term buildings at the base and replacing the razor wire and fencing with solid walls.
Campaigners say that rather than building permanent prison facilities, the US should grant the prisoners legal access and allow them "due process". Wendy Patten, US advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said it was essential that the US observed the Geneva Conventions, which would give the prisoners free and unfettered access to lawyers.
"Here are a set of rules that governments abide by during times of war," she said. "The signal that the US sends out by refusing to observe them is that it is all right to pick and choose from the rules of war."
Campaigners received a boost last week when the Supreme Court announced that it would examine whether Guantanamo Bay fell within the jurisdiction of the US courts. Lower courts had supported the claim of the Bush administration that Guantanamo Bay, technically leased from Cuba, was outside the jurisdiction and prisoners were not eligible for the protection of the US constitution. If the Supreme Court places Guantanamo Bay within US legal jurisdiction there is likely to be a flood of lawsuits demanding the US to charge the prisoners or release them. Ms Patten said: "The question is can the government carve out a place in the world beyond the law, beyond the reach of the courts that review the legality of such actions."Reuse content