Rupert Cornwell: Guantanamo has to be closed - and soon

I must confess that I had few qualms about the prison when it first opened

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You might have imagined that Guantanamo's abysmal reputation could have sunk no lower. But over the past fortnight it has. A United Nations human rights report has just called for the place to be shut down, its inmates either be quickly tried or freed, and for any US personnel responsible for abuse of detainees to be brought to justice.

A few days earlier, it emerged that a harsh new technique involving "restraining chairs" had been used - successfully, it appears - to break a spreading hunger strike by prisoners. And all this, by the way, as new photos are published of the 2003 abuse at Abu Ghraib (a prison managed on principles tried and tested at Guantanamo Bay).

In a sense, the débâcle stems from the very virtues of the American system. Despite everything, the prison is not entirely closed off from the world. Had it been, it would have truly been the Gulag camp to which it is likened - a place of ghastly reputation but few facts. Not so however with Guantanamo Bay.

Unlike the "ghost camps" run by the CIA, we know where it is and roughly who is held there. Courtesy of The New York Times, we know that the small Iowa company which makes the Emergency Restraint Chair shipped "five $1,150 (£661) chairs to Guantanamo on 5 December, and 20 additional chairs on 10 January," via a military postal address in Virginia. Such are the matter-of-fact details of repression that emerge in a democracy.

We further learn, according to a lawyer for three Bahrainis held at Gitmo, that one of his clients had told him in late January that some 20 long-term hunger strikers had given up their protest after being strapped in the chairs and having their feeding tubes inserted and removed so violently that some bled or fainted.

In short, facts are out there - even if Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, contemptuously dismissed similar evidence contained in the latest UN report. Claims of torture and abuse were nonsense. It was well known, he declared, that al-Qa'ida detainees "are trained in trying to disseminate false allegations".

As for the procedures to end the hunger strike, officials insist that these are consistent with those employed in federal prisons in the United States. The difference, of course, is that in federal prisons, inmates have been tried before a court, and found guilty of specific crimes by a jury of their peers. No such luxuries have been afforded to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, a site outside the US and explicitly chosen because such tiresome legal constraints did not apply there.

But at least the claims are made public. In that respect among others, Guantanamo Bay is not the Gulag. No inmate's lawyers roamed Stalin's camps at Solovki, Vorkuta and Kolyma. The minutiae of their operations never found their way intoPravda and Izvestia. Even in today's war on terror, families are not informed that a prisoner has been sentenced to "10 years without the right of correspondence" - the icy Soviet formulation that everyone knew meant death, unannounced and unrecorded.

I must confess that, like most people in the US, I had few qualms about the prison when it first opened for business four years ago. After 3,000 civilians had been killed in the most murderous foreign attack on the US mainland in almost two centuries, the distinction between an "enemy combatant" and prisoner of war seemed an irrelevant legal nicety.

I was wrong. Like most people here, I had no idea that, come 2006, the camp would still be around, that some of its original inmates would still be there, uncharged and untried, deliberately consigned to a no-man's-land, beyond the purview of American or any other law.

The justifications advanced by the US authorities are now absurd. Four years on, whatever intelligence value these individuals once had has surely long since been exhausted. Many of them, it is known, were caught in the American net by accident in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sometimes handed over by rivals, for reasons that had far more to do with bounty collection than the "war on terror". Lawyers say that only 8 per cent of prisoners have been classified as al-Qa'ida fighters, and that less than half, according to Pentagon documents, have committed a "hostile act" against the US.

But we can't release them, intone Donald Rumsfeld and his minions; once freed, they would revert to doing "bad things against America". As if an extra 490 "bad guys" - assuming they are "bad guys" - would make much difference, when in Iraq alone active insurgents number at least 20,000, and when the very existence of Guantanamo Bay is among the terrorists' most potent recruiting agents.

But, in this White House, no one seems to care about that. No one seems concerned by the unanimous feeling of America's allies - let alone America's enemies - that Guantanamo should be shut down. Even by this administration's standards, Mr McClellan's contempt was remarkable. The UN report was a "discredit" to the organisation. Did it not have better things to do?

In short, every outward sign is that this dreadful place is here to stay. A new permanent "facility" - to use that American bureau-speak word that covers anything from a $1bn football stadium to a state-of-the-art execution chamber - is being built. In this case, however, permanence may not extend much beyond the beginning of 2009.

George Bush, famously, will never admit to a mistake. But George Bush will not be around for ever. Barring another traumatic terrorist attack being visited on American soil, I would wager that one of the first acts of the next US President - whoever he or she is - will be to issue an executive order closing down a place that is not only a colossal disgrace, but a colossal liability as well.

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