Tuesday, January 31, 2006

America's prison in Cuba

Mon, January 30, 2006

London Free Press, Canada

CP reporter Beth Gorham recently visited Cuba and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Here are her impressions of the base that houses one of the world's most notorious prisons.

By BETH GORHAM, CP

It's a strange place for an internment camp holding about 500 suspected terrorists. The chain link and barbed wire, the watch towers and the rifles toted by watchful soldiers -- all are at odds with the tropical beauty of Cuba's southeast coast.

When the first prisoners from the war on terrorism were brought to this U.S. naval base four years ago from Afghanistan, they were housed for nearly four months at Camp X-Ray, a gruesome set of outdoor pens that look like large dog kennels.

I picked my way through the abandoned prison, shocked by how primitive it was. The makeshift cells are overgrown with creeper vines and inhabited by small mammals the marines call banana rats.

There are no toilets or sinks; the prisoners were provided with two buckets for waste and they showered in the open without privacy.

Plastic sheets were sometimes lowered for protection from the blazing Cuban sun.

All the cell doors are open and there are still locks on the ground, available to visiting journalists as macabre souvenirs.

There are plywood interrogation huts and a dingy medical building where medics coped with major injuries among prisoners. The old guardhouse holds a wooden box with one lone key dangling from a hook.

Now the prisoners are housed in Camp Delta a few kilometres away. It looks much more like a regular U.S. prison, surrounded by two tall fences with barbed wire in between.

There are five separate concrete structures and a sixth is under construction nearby.

One is a communal, medium-security facility that affords a lot more freedom for detainees likely on their way to being released.

Prisoners wear orange, tan or white uniforms depending on their level of compliance.

News from around the world is posted on the cell blocks, including word of former Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein. There are arrows pointing toward Mecca to guide the Muslim men; they face in that direction to pray five times a day.

In the recreation area, the actual distance to Mecca of 12,793 kilometres is painted on the concrete floor.

Each cell has a Qur'an hanging from the bars in a surgical mask to keep it off the floor, and the hallways have ''prayer cones'' alerting guards they should be quiet as the detainees pray.

The base itself, home to about 8,000 U.S. forces and their families, support staff and people who have requested asylum, looks a lot like a regular town.

There are schools, an outdoor movie park, recreation centres, restaurants and suburban-looking subdivisions of townhouses and large four-bedroom homes with big garages. There's even a Starbucks and a McDonald's.

The beaches are beautiful and filled with coral, a paradise for divers. There's an old lighthouse that's been replaced by a mechanized light overlooking rolling hills that are more green and lush than usual, thanks to a record rainfall last year.

A small shopping mall holds a tourist shop selling T-shirts, ballcaps and mugs.

High on a hill overlooking the base, the prison camp and the sparkling Caribbean, four towering windmills provide about 25 per cent of the base's power.

From there you can see the yellow military commission building, where a handful of detainees, including Omar Khadr, have attended tribunals in a plush hearing room designed to look just like a courtroom.

Just outside town is the infamous line that divides the 116-square-kilometre base from the rest of Cuba, where a fence stretching 27 kilometres is patrolled by more than 100 junior U.S. marines in camouflage uniforms.

They watch their Cuban counterparts on the other side on Humvee patrols or through high-power binoculars from boxy wooden towers strung through the arid, rolling landscape.

It's a barren, lonely area filled with sagebrush and crickets. Every now and then, a vulture circles overhead.

Stadium-like lights have been erected to monitor the area, still an entry point for migrants who brave landmines on the Cuban side to get to the Americans and request asylum.

There's only one break in the fence, at the northeast gate, where the last two Cuban workers allowed on the base still pass each morning to get to their jobs at an auto body shop and an office supply store.

Before the break in diplomatic relations with Communist leader Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, hundreds of Cubans worked on the base. About 900 still collect U.S. pensions delivered monthly by the final pair of employees.

JUST THE FACTS: GUANTANAMO BAY

Nickname: Gitmo

Established: 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War

Ancient history: Christopher Columbus is thought to have spent a night in the bay in 1494, while looking for gold. None was found.

Claim to fame: Oldest U.S. base overseas

Size: 116 square kilometres

Original purpose: Providing support for U.S. navy. The U.S. has continued to occupy the station even though diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States broke off in 1961.

Lease: The U.S. government obtained a perpetual lease on the base on Feb. 23, 1903.

Treaty: In 1934, a treaty reaffirmed the lease and obliged the U.S. to pay $4,085 US a year.

Unhappy landlord: Since coming to power, Communist leader Fidel Castro has only cashed one rent cheque and views the lease as illegitimate. The base has produced its own power and water since Castro cut off supplies.

Current activities: Patrolling waters for drug runners; dealing with migrants who arrive by sea or over the fence line separating the base from Cuban territory

Internment camp: Established on Jan. 11, 2002, for suspected terrorists

Residents: About 8,000, including more than 4,200 marines and members of a task force responsible for detainees; nearly 1,800 mostly Jamaican support staff; civil service personnel; 30 Cubans and one Haitian who have requested asylum.

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