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Government spending millions on Guantanamo facility

Monday, January 10, 2005

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- The U.S. prison camp for terror suspects is taking on a look of permanence as the mission marks its third year Tuesday, with plans for a new $25 million prison facility, $1.7 million psychiatric wing and a permanent guard force.

Most of the 550 prisoners from 42 countries no longer are considered of significant intelligence value, but many swept up in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan aren't expected to be freed anytime soon -- some because of stalled legal proceedings, others because they allegedly still pose a threat to the United States or its allies.

"Where this will go four or five years down the road, I don't know," said Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, who has commanded the mission for nine months.

Such uncertainties, coupled with multiplying allegations of abuse, are under attack from lawyers and human rights groups who say the camp is an affront to American values.

Only four men have been charged and most prisoners are denied access to lawyers.

"Guantanamo has become an icon of lawlessness ... dangerous to us all," London-based Amnesty International said in a statement.

Ten cases of abuse have also put the detention mission in a poor light. Documents show that the FBI suggested the government failed to act on its complaints -- made a year before the scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Incidents include allegations that a female interrogator grabbed a detainee's genitals and us of an attack dog to intimidate a detainee. Cases also include a shackled prisoner who was left lying in his own feces.

The military, which has ordered an independent investigation, insists most cases detailed by the FBI are old and that many questionable interrogation techniques no longer are used.

Although all prisoners are accused of links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime or the al-Qaida terrorist network, Osama bin Laden has remained at large since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States.

Among those held at Guantanamo are an alleged al-Qaida financier who was in Orlando, Fla., the same day as Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta; the alleged designer of a prototype shoe bomb; and a man accused of plotting to attack oil tankers in the Persian Gulf using explosive-laden fishing boats, Pentagon spokeswoman Barbara Burfeind said.

But, "the majority of the individuals that are here today ... are not of intelligence value -- right now," said Steve Rodriguez, a civilian in charge of interrogations.

The four prisoners who have been charged are low-level suspects, including bin Laden's driver, an al-Qaida accountant, a propagandist and an Australian cowboy allegedly turned Taliban fighter.

The government's intention was to try the men in military commissions, but U.S. District Judge James Robertson blocked that process when he ruled in November that bin Laden driver Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 34, could not be tried unless a competent tribunal decided he was not entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions for prisoners of war.

Robertson also ruled Hamdan -- charged with transporting weapons to al-Qaida operatives -- cannot be tried unless commissions conform to the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice, including the need to charge and try suspects in a timely manner, and the right to confront witnesses. The men are only allowed to be present during unclassified portions of the legal proceedings, and their attorneys are not permitted to tell them about any classified evidence the government holds.

Robertson's decision effectively stalled all commissions.

"It's reminiscent of a bad western," said Hamdan's military-appointed defense attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift. "Prisoners are sitting in the jail before the judges come to town. Meanwhile, they're constructing the gallows."

The military also has seen three of its four cases of alleged spying at Guantanamo Bay fall apart. In September, the military dropped an espionage charge against Senior Airman Ahmad Al Halabi, who was accused of trying to deliver messages from detainees to an unidentified Syrian. Al Halabi pleaded guilty to four lesser charges, including taking an unauthorized picture of the camp.

Still pending is a federal case against civilian translator Ahmed Mehalba, accused of lying about having classified materials.

Since the first 20 shackled and blindfolded prisoners arrived at Guantanamo on Jan. 11, 2002, open-air pens likened to animal cages by rights activists have been replaced by prefabricated cells where prisoners can communicate through steel-mesh doors.

Right now, about 50 detainees are held in a maximum security prison that has room for 100 prisoners of high intelligence value. There are plans for a similar facility with a capacity for 200 at a cost of $25 million, Hood said. If Congress approves, the camera-equipped facility could reduce the number of guards needed, Hood said.

Also planned are a $1.7 million psychiatric wing -- there have been 34 reported suicide attempts since the prison opened -- and a $4 million security fence that could reduce the need for some 300 infantry troops.

A full-time, 324-member Military Police Internment and Resettlement Battalion will also replace the temporary, mostly reserve force at Guantanamo. Some soldiers will have experience in prisons such as the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., or guarding prisoners of war, said Army Lt. Col. Kevin Burk, who will lead the 525 Brigade. Some soldiers already are being trained.

About 200 prisoners have been released or transferred since the mission began, but most are still being held and some -- including five Moroccans -- are on trial in their homelands.

In a major setback to the Bush administration's plans for detainees, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Guantanamo prisoners can challenge their detentions in federal court. Since then, 69 detainees have filed 19 cases challenging the legality of their detention as enemy combatants. Rulings are expected soon.

Outside of the courts, prisoners have a chance for release or transfer with two types of proceedings.

The Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which are nearly completed, have freed only two men found to be non-enemy combatants, a classification that affords few legal protections.

The yearly Administrative Review Boards have just begun to decide whether the men still hold valuable intelligence or are a threat to the United States.

Hood said he expects some prisoners will be released.


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