GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba—Agatha Christie may have slipped off the best-seller list, but she's still popular among the several hundred terrorist suspects imprisoned at this remote island detention camp.
A library in a drab double-wide—its stacks of books available in 16 languages, including Arabic and Chinese—is among the perks U.S. military officials promote as they seek to put a friendlier face on the controversial camp, which has been the subject of international protests over the detention and treatment of detainees.
The library, however, is off-limits to the detainees, but military officials say that hasn't slackened their literary interests. A military officer/librarian makes the rounds to the cells of more than 400 men who are housed in small, stark cellblocks ringed by fences topped by barbed wire.
"If we're late, they're bugging the guards," one librarian said of the detainees, whose tastes are said to favor Arabic poets and British mysteries. Harry Potter is also said to be a favorite.
Despite President Bush's acknowledgment last spring that the camp's existence gives ammunition to U.S. critics, work continues apace on a $37 million maximum-security facility modeled after a U.S. prison and so does an aggressive public relations effort aimed at portraying the detention center as a critical element in the administration's war against terrorism.
"We're keeping enemy combatants off the battlefield," said Brig. Gen. Edward Leacock, the camp's second in command and the assistant adjutant general of the Maryland Army National Guard. "We're doing it right and we're doing it professionally."
Most of the detainees, however, haven't even been charged with any crimes, and reports of mistreatment and torture have dogged the facility since it opened months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to house what the administration charges are dangerous men. Three detainees hanged themselves in June. The military described their act as coordinated to prod the United States into closing the camp, but critics attributed the suicides to a sense of profound hopelessness.
Those critics, including attorneys who routinely visit with detainees, have described an island gulag of desolation and despair. They point out that the detainees are held in drab cage-like cells and issued thin mattresses, prison garb and little else.
To counter the image, the military says it welcomes scrutiny, though the Associated Press had to go to court to get the detainees' names and camp officials refuse to give an exact number of the detainees there at any one time.
Leacock claims the detention camp is "the most transparent facility in the world." He said that it's hosted foreign and congressional delegations and the International Committee of the Red Cross and, since 2002, has led nearly 1,000 tours for reporters and photographers from 40 countries.
The highly structured familiarization tour includes interviews with guards and tours of the library, the cellblocks and the medical and dental clinics.
There's an opportunity to sample the food the detainees are served (4,200 calories a day). Food has triggered controversy since the camp opened, with two detainees on a hunger strike for more than a year. The military notes that the detainees are served Islamic-approved halal meals. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with detainees fasting during the daytime, the captives were served post-sunset meals and midnight meals. They also received portions of baklava, a traditional dessert.
"We've got Ramadan down," said Army Capt. Dan Byer.
There's a glimpse of an interrogation room—complete with a La-Z-Boy recliner and Persian-style rug. No interviews with detainees or interrogators are allowed. Contrary to allegations of torture, Leacock said that "rapport building" is the only interrogation technique "generally used" at the camp.
"I challenge any place in the world to have that much legal representation and visibility," Leacock said. "It's our effort to show we are doing the right things for the right reasons."
The sharpest criticism centers around the fact that many detainees are left in legal limbo as they mark years behind bars.
Bush has said he wants to try the detainees, and earlier this month he signed a law to establish rules for interrogating and trying suspected terrorists before military commissions. But the law is already being challenged, and some members of Congress who voted for it have questioned whether it is constitutional.
For now, military commissions are on hold, though camp officials said they hope to resume them early next year.
Meanwhile, a military review board examines detainee cases annually. In 2005, it decided to designate more than 100 detainees for release or transfer because it deemed they were no longer threats. Yet the men aren't allowed lawyers for the hearings, and only 1 in 5 agrees to appear before the board. Lawyers for the men said many consider them show trials.
Two attorneys said they were spurred to travel to the island recently by a sense of outrage over the indefinite detentions. They believe mistreatment has subsided, given the scrutiny. But they consider detention without deadlines a black mark against the United States.
"The overriding concern is the extreme loss of liberty, the isolation and the uncertainty," said Bernie Casey, a Vietnam War-era military lawyer who now works at the San Francisco office of law firm Reed Smith. "They're living their lives in a cell with the Quran and their prayers and no answers as to when they might ever leave.
"My concern is now we're down this path to at least incorporating some of the dark side into our treatment of detainees," Casey said, and "we are deprived of the standing to object should our people be similarly treated or worse."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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