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Ten years after first detentions, controversy remains

Wed., Jan. 11, 2012

First prisoners arrived 10 years ago

Ten years ago today, U.S. troops marched 20 men in chains off a military cargo plane at Guantanamo Bay to launch America’s war-on-terror experiment in offshore detention and justice. Now, the prison camps enter their second decade with death penalty tribunals on the horizon and President Barack Obama still struggling to find a formula for closure.

Here are some developments Guantanamo watchers can expect to see:

Pressure to expand

Congress has through a variety of legislation tried to grow the enterprise that has hundreds of empty cells in the crude complex that sprawls along the U.S. Navy base’s waterfront. But the Obama administration’s goal is to shrink then close it.

“It’s the president’s stated objective to never send anyone to Guantanamo again,” Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said on Tuesday. As of this week, the military had 1,850 U.S. troops and Defense Department contractors on staff of the prison holding 171 captives.

Prison camp unrest

Tensions are high over a toughening of rules. Captives complain that the camps instituted a new 25-day punitive segregation regime for rule breakers in a cramped cell at the once-secret Camp 5 Echo; that guards are seizing captives’ spare blankets and clothing after years of a more liberal cell “comfort item” policy; and that guards are now shackling a captive by all four limbs, not just at his ankles, at medical appointments.

On Tuesday, captives told their guards they’d be refusing meals, staging sit-ins and hanging protest signs for three days surrounding the anniversary, according to accounts from the military and defense lawyers.


The White House wants to wind down the war in Afghanistan. And it’s the heart of the conflict that Congress OK’d in the Sept. 18, 2001, Authorization for the Use of Military Force, from which the Pentagon designed its indefinite detention regime.

But, “If there are peace talks and if the war is considered over, what will the courts say about continued detention?” says Andrew Prasow, a former Guantanamo defender and now senior counterterror counsel for Human Rights Watch.

Ten Guantanamo captives are Afghan, and some of the 171 prisoners probably never even set foot on Afghan soil after 9/11. But the basis for captivity in Cuba stems from the conflict in Afghanistan.

“Will a court say the conflict has ended?” Prasow asks. “After Osama bin Laden is killed, after peace talks with the Taliban, it may no longer justify indefinite detention.”

Death penalty

Prosecutors expect to bring the alleged 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants before the war court on death penalty charges. And the first man to face a capital trial is the alleged USS Cole bomber, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. CIA agents waterboarded both men.

The two cases, says attorney Matt Waxman, who ran detainee affairs in the Bush years, “combine ‘big fish’ defendants, interrogation controversy and the prospects of death penalties.

Those factors combine to raise the profile of these cases, if not their stakes.”

The public should also expect to learn in the 11th year whether the Obama administration ramps up its reformed commissions or continues to rely on federal civilian prosecutions for terror cases.

Canadian may go

The Canadian who threw a grenade at age 15 that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in 2002 could go to a prison in Canada any day now.

Under an October 2010 plea agreement, Omar Khadr pleaded guilty and got at most eight more years confinement, in consideration of his age.

Now, says his Toronto attorney, John Norris, the latest defense bill makes it easier for the Obama administration to transfer the 25-year-old from Guantanamo. The Toronto-born Khadr’s lawyers expect he’ll suddenly turn up in a federal penitentiary in Ontario or Quebec, where the country keeps convicted terrorists. Then in 2013, after a third of his sentence, Khadr can apply for parole under Canada’s legal code for juvenile offenders.

More attention

With the Iraq war over, the show business theater is shrinking, too. So expect more entertainers to join the pilgrimages by everyone from musicians to comedians to Shakespearean actors to Lady Gaga lookalikes to the Navy outpost that gets free first-run movies every night.

Entertainers get easy commutes, the run of the base’s bars and guest quarters with 24-hour cable TV. Next up: The Atlanta based pop-rock quintet Cartel plays a rock ‘n’ roll half marathon Jan. 29.

Also, Guantanamo continues to provide fodder for the imagination with this year’s release of the novel “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.” It’s Alex Gilvarry’s tale of a Filipino design school graduate who is swept off to the prison camps and trial as a “Fashion terrorist.”

Inquests end

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service should close the books on what killed Awal Gul, 48, whom the prison camps say collapsed in a prison shower in February after working out on an exercise machine, and Haji Nassim, 37, whom guards reportedly discovered in May hanging by a bedsheet in a prison recreation yard.

Investigations of the deaths of both Afghan “indefinite detainees” are still considered open, says Ed Buice at the NCIS in Quantico, Va.

“All death cases go through the Death Review Board, then Death Review Panel process.

“They get very careful scrutiny to make sure that every conceivable lead has been found and followed, evidence gathered and analyzed, every step documented, etc.”

Campaign theme

Expect the Republicans to portray Obama as soft on terror for still wanting to close the camps that have stirred anger in the Muslim world and unhappiness among U.S. allies.

And expect the president to reply that it was on his watch that U.S. forces killed bin Laden, for whom America built a prison compound at Guantanamo.


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