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19 Mar 2018 8:33
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  •   Home > News > International

    Donald Trump's Guantanamo

    When the first inmates arrived at Guantanamo Bay in the wake of 9/11, they were shackled and kept in kennel-like cages. But when Donald Trump announced last month he was keeping the notorious prison open, some watched the announcement live on TV in their

    When Donald Trump announced to the world he was keeping the Guantanamo Bay detention centre open, some of the inmates watched it live on the television sets in their cell blocks.

    They were not surprised or upset.

    "The detainees as a whole are happy to see things in the news about Guantanamo," Colonel Stephen E Gabvacis, commander of the Joint Detention Group, says.

    "They appreciate that because it means to them somebody is thinking about them."

    Mr Trump's decision to keep the notorious prison open officially reverses the policies of his predecessors, presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, who both wanted to close it and bring the inmates to trial on the US mainland.

    Not only does Mr Trump want to prolong the prison's life, he has paved the way for enemy combatants caught on new battlefields in the war against the Islamic State (IS) militant group to be sent there.

    Of the 780 detainees who have been held at Guantanamo since it opened in 2002, only 41 remain.

    "They don't care about how many new detainees will come to Gitmo or if they do not come," says the prison's cultural advisor, a Muslim Pentagon employee who can only be identified as Zak.

    Their focus instead is on the prospect of one day getting out.

    Zak says they were pleased Mr Trump's order keeps intact the body that reviews inmates' eligibility for release.

    "All they care about is right now … is transfers," he says.

    Life inside Guantanamo

    More than half the inmates languishing in Guantanamo are housed in Camp Six, a 176-cell block modelled off a prison in Michigan.

    The military insists the conditions at the camp are better than in some prisons on the US mainland.

    Inside the cell block, guards watch the detainees through one-way glass.

    One inmate sits on the couch watching TV, occasionally gesturing angrily at the broadcast.

    Another is asleep on a couch in the corner.

    A third appears to be making a salad from the food prepared by a team of Filipino contract laborers in a kitchen not far from the camp.

    The detainees are consulted regularly about their meals and get to choose from a selection. Today the lunch menu includes beef stroganoff.

    The detainees are not shy about telling the cooks what they don't like — stuffed bell peppers were not popular and have been stricken from the menu.

    For 22 hours a day, inmates have access to televisions, books, various classes and computer games.

    The most popular PlayStation game right now is FIFA 2018.

    It's vastly different to what the first group of detainees experienced when they arrived in 2002 after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York.

    Shackled and forced to wear orange jumpsuits, they were kept in dog kennel-like wire cages and left to bake in the Caribbean sun.

    It was the place the Bush administration said would house the "worst of the worst" among those captured in the war on terror.

    The prison became a political liability when it emerged some inmates were subjected to the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques", which many claimed amounted to torture.

    In those early years, inmates were known to go on hunger strikes, throw faeces at guards, and spit at them.

    The guards say those days are largely over.

    "They have learnt to accept the facts of life and learnt to accept their fate," says Zak, who meets with the detainees in Camp Six regularly.

    "There is nothing they can do to expedite it.

    "They have tried in the past other ways to influence decision makers through suicide, through protest, through hunger strikes. They found out that does not take them anywhere."

    The mysterious camp falling apart

    Somewhere on the US naval base that houses Guantanamo is the secretive Camp Seven.

    It's home to the so-called high-value detainees. Among them are the alleged 9/11 plotters, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the alleged mastermind of the Bali bombings, Hambali.

    Little is known about the mysterious camp, other than it is falling apart.

    A Pentagon budget proposal released this week includes a request for $US69 million to rebuild the aging camp.

    The current facility is "deteriorating rapidly", exacerbated by the tropical climate, budget documents claim.

    Electrical, mechanical and secure communication systems are "stressed and at risk of failure" they say, and portions of the camp will become unusable in the near term.

    Reporters are not allowed to see Camp Seven, and questions about it are dismissed with some variation of "that's classified".

    'Fill it up' plan could hit legal snag

    Mr Trump's plan to "fill up" Guantanamo with new detainees might sound grand, but it could prove difficult.

    Several of the camps that once housed detainees have been abandoned or turned into administrative facilities.

    Officials at Guantanamo are vague about exactly how many new detainees they could cope with.

    Mr Trump could also run into legal hurdles.

    There are questions over whether the Authorisation for Use of Military Force Act, which was passed after 9/11, would cover IS fighters in addition to Al Qaeda militants.

    "There are a number of legal challenges that would likely be made," Lee Wolosky, special envoy for Guantanamo closure in the final years of the Obama administration, says.

    It's also not clear what will happen to the 41 detainees still there.

    Some are facing trials, others have not been charged but deemed too dangerous for release.

    Among the current detainees are five men who were cleared for release under Mr Obama, but are yet to be transferred under the Trump administration.

    "They are going to be there for a while," Mr Wolosky predicts.

    Between presidents Bush and Obama, more than 700 inmates have been transferred out of Guantanamo to other countries.

    Some went home to places like Saudi Arabia, while others were sent to start new lives in places like Uruguay or Montenegro.

    Keeping Guantanamo open 'incites hatred'

    Despite Mr Trump's order, critics say the case for closing Guantanamo remains as strong as ever.

    "It is exorbitant cost, brings no national security benefit, and only incites hatred against the United States," Mr Wolosky says.

    There are 1,700 personnel at Guantanamo to look after a few dozen detainees.

    On average, $US10 million is spent per detainee each year to keep the place open.

    Its track record on delivering justice is considered to be woeful — the detainees accused of plotting 9/11 have been in pre-trial hearings for six years.

    A date to start the actual trial hasn't been set.

    Mr Wolosky says keeping Guantanamo open has — and will continue — to put America at risk.

    "Anyone who has witnessed [Islamic State] prisoners being led to their deaths in orange Guantanamo jumpsuits can recognise … that it incites hatred against the United States," he says.

    "We don't need more of that."

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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