Guantanamo builds tent city for war-crime tribunals amid uncertain future

Sunday, November 11, 2007

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- A network of canvas tents on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea has been custom designed for the U.S. military's war-crime tribunals -- with the flexibility to pick up and move if Guantanamo closes.

Nearly 100 tents and a windowless courthouse made of corrugated metal will form the $12 million Expeditionary Legal Complex, scheduled to open in the spring to hold trials for dozens of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Navy base in southeast Cuba.

With the future of the prison camp uncertain -- even President Bush has said he wants to close it -- the plan was scaled back dramatically from the $125 million permanent, three-courtroom structure that the Pentagon proposed last year.

The commander of the detention center, Navy Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, said the complex includes maximum-security detention areas and other features to accommodate trials for "high-value" detainees such as alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

At trials expected to involve classified evidence, the military judge will be able to cut off sound to spectators separated by a clear plastic window.

"It will have everything that is required to conduct multiple, simultaneous, highly classified commission hearings," Buzby said in a recent interview.

The only sacrifice in the new design, he said, may be comfort. Dubbed Camp Justice, the compound will be able to house as many as 500 lawyers, journalists and staff. Each air-conditioned tent will sleep as many as eight people on cots, with separate facilities for latrines, showers and laundry.

The hurricane-resistant tents, which are shaped like Quonset huts, are laid out in a grid pattern around McCalla Field, an abandoned airstrip where a tent complex erected in the 1990s held tens of thousands of Cuban rafters as the U.S. negotiated with Havana on their repatriation.

The tan tents could begin housing people for tribunal sessions as early as next month, but officials say the courthouse -- the only permanent part of the compound -- likely will not open for proceedings until April.

Nearly six years after the U.S. military began bringing men to Guantanamo, it has yet to bring any to trial, though one detainee was convicted in a plea bargain that sent him to his native Australia. Efforts to prosecute others have been stalled by legal challenges and a string of procedural problems.

As the military presses ahead with plans to try as many as 80 of the 305 detainees, Bush administration officials have been debating proposals to shut the prison camp, which has drawn international criticism for holding detainees outside the traditional U.S. court system.

Critics say the chosen architecture reflects the government's uncertainty.

"The expeditionary nature of the tent city suggests that even the administration recognizes it may not be there for long," said Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch.

If detainees suddenly leave, the tent city could easily follow.

"The military is all about contingencies," said Army Lt. Col. Edward Bush, a spokesman for the Joint Task Force in charge of the detention mission. "Whenever the day comes that the JTF is no more, you can pack up your tents and call it a day."

The Pentagon's initial proposal, which called for accommodations for as many as 1,200 people, was dropped after the price tag prompted an outcry from Congress.

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