Guantanamo's most photographed prison camp is now empty

Miami HeraldFebruary 1, 2011 

A detainee can be seen beyond the fence at Guantanamo's Camp 4 in September. U.S. military often brought visitors to Guantanamo to the camp to see and photograph detainees. The camp was closed in January for renovation. This photo was approved for publication by U.S. military censors.

MARK SEIBEL / MCT

Guantánamo's Camp 4 — the iconic eight-year-old, open-air prison facility where captives bunked in barracks, posed for pictures and, for a day in 2006, rioted — has been emptied for repairs.

Guards moved the last dozens out of Camp 4 "over the course of January," said Army Col. Donnie Thomas on Tuesday.

Thomas, whose title is Joint Detention Group Commander, is the senior Military Police officer in charge of the camps in southeast Cuba, which this week held 173 captives in five prison camps.

The vast majority, not quite 130, are being held in a steel-and-cement penitentiary style building called Camp 6, where up to 220 captives can eat and pray together in groups but are locked in solitary prison cells inside the blocks at night.

In a telephone interview, Thomas disputed attorneys' reports that the captives have been riveted by news coverage of democracy protests that toppled Tunisia's 23-year ruler and now threatens the presidency of long-time U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

A portion of the prisoners had recently been more interested in soccer than politics, he said, adding that captives can still tune in to live news reports on al Jazeera's English-language service as they did before the democracy protests.

The Asia Cup just ended. It was played in Qatar, headquarters of al Jazeera.

"Of course they're aware of what's going on in Egypt,'' he said, "but, no, they are not participating in the unrest that is going on in those countries.''

Signs that go up from time to time in the cellblocks are focused on "discontent'' -- not the faraway protests, he said.

He would not give specifics.

"We deal with detainee complaints every day,'' he said. "It's not related to anything that's going on in any way to in Egypt or Tunisia.''

As for Camp 4, Thomas said "drainage issues,'' and the need to do maintenance drove the decision to consolidate all of Guantánamo so-called compliant prisoners into Camp 6, across the road from a stretch of seafront property overlooking the Caribbean.

Camp 4, known to prisoners as Camp Sky for its open spaces, became a regular stop on congressional and media tours soon after it opened in February 2003.

Escorts would park photographers there before dawn to capture images of the foreign men kneeling in prayer or usher them in during daylight hours to photograph them kicking soccer balls, doing laundry or eating in groups -- a chain-linked fence away from the sailors who guarded them. Military censors then picked through the pictures to delete those showing prisoners' faces.

Unlike other camps, where the media could watch the captives through one-way glass, the prisoners could plainly see the photographers and decide whether to strut or stand for the cameras. Some did. Others ducked into their barracks.

Guards all but emptied it once before, in May 2004, after the military said it foiled an uprising attempt.

Captives barricaded themselves in their bunkhouses, poured human waste and soap on the floor and tore fluorescent bulbs from their sockets to fight a guard force trying to undertake a snap inspection.

Thomas said some captives might be moved back to Camp 4 in the spring, after the renovations. At its height, it held about 175 captives but since May 2004 the population hadn't topped 75.

Meantime, the prison camp public affairs staff on Tuesday continued to offer visitors to their website a "virtual tour'' of what life is like in Camp 4. To see it, go to http://www.jtfgtmo.southcom.mil/virtualvisit/camp_4.html

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