By NEIL A. LEWIS
U.S. NAVAL AIR STATION, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - Fifteen months after the first hooded and shackled detainees arrived at a primitive tent facility known as Camp X-Ray, some 664 prisoners seized after the Afghan war remain here in a legal, political and geographical limbo.
The hastily erected tents have been replaced by more permanent structures. Each cell has a metal bed stenciled with a bright yellow arrow pointing to Mecca. The heavily guarded and isolated Islamic world created here on the southeastern coast of Cuba has also undergone some cultural adaptations over the last year.
It is the only United States military base where the lilting Muslim call to prayer is heard five times a day over loudspeakers as part of the Pentagon's intensive program to demonstrate respect for the detainees' Islamic faith.
"What they hear is the actual call as it's heard in either Mecca or Medina, depending on what CD I choose to play that day," said Capt. Youseff Yee, the Islamic chaplain. Detainees are supplied with prayer caps, prayer oils, beads and copies of the Koran. They have also developed a fondness for the bagels they are served as part of their bread ration.
With the United States on the verge of releasing 7,000 prisoners seized during the war in Iraq, lawyers and human rights advocates say they hope the contrast with the long detentions here will put more pressure on the administration to deal with the people captured in Afghanistan and other countries in the campaign against terrorism.
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To a small extent, the military has begun to do that. In mid-March, 22 prisoners were released from Guantanamo, sent back to Afghanistan with blue jeans, new copies of the Koran and, on average, an additional 13 pounds from a diet that is similar to that of the soldiers who guard them. At the other end of the spectrum, the Pentagon is preparing soon to bring a handful of inmates before a military tribunal.
But the majority of the detainees still face an uncertain future on an island chosen explicitly for its unusual features. Not only is the base lodged on sovereign territory of Cuba, a nominally hostile country, and ringed by a 17-mile-long fence with armed watchtowers on both sides. Two federal courts have also said that despite the fact that it is totally under United States control, the base is outside the reach of United States law because it is technically part of Cuba.
There have been no credible reports of abuse or substantial complaints about the physical conditions of the detainees. The criticisms from the human rights groups that look after such issues have been more encompassing; that is, that the United States has detained the men indefinitely without any legal rights.
The military will give only approximate numbers of detainees and the number of nations they represent, about 40. But Dr. Najeef bin Mohamad Ahmed al-Nauimi, a former justice minister in Qatar, who is representing nearly 100 of the detainees, said he had a good idea of who was imprisoned at Guantanamo.
The largest group, about 150, are Saudis, he said in an interview, and he represents many of them. There are also 83 Yemenis and 53 Pakistanis, he said, and a sprinkling of others, including some Canadians, Britons, Algerians and one Swede.
Prisoners from Afghanistan are still being sent here. Naeem Koochi, an Afghan tribal leader, was transferred here in late March.
Many international lawyers have argued that the United States is obliged under the Geneva conventions to hold tribunals to determine whether the detainees are prisoners of war. If they are, they contend, they should have been released when the fighting in Afghanistan ended. But the United States says the Guantanamo inmates are "unlawful combatants," and do not qualify for prisoner-of-war status.
Sir Adam Roberts, an oxford University professor who is a leading authority on the law of war, said that the United States might not be obliged to treat them as prisoners of war but that officials should recognize that they had some international legal rights. "The U.S. has paid a huge price in international opinion," he said. "In Britain, people see Guantanamo as a symbol of American defiance of international norms. Christophe Girod, leader of the International Committee of the Red Cross mission in Washington, said committee representatives had been able to visit all the detainees and to help them write letters home. The committee representatives make known their views on conditions to American officials and will not discuss them publicly as part of the understanding by which they gain access.
People familiar with the discussions between the Red Cross and the Pentagon's lawyers say there have been no serious complaints about the physical conditions. The discussions have rather been principally about the nature of the indefinite detention and the slow pace in releasing detainees against whom there is no evidence of wrongdoing." They are obviously very concerned about the Guantanamo situation and the indefinite component," Sir Adam said.
Military officials here say they must keep the Guantanamo detainees locked up securely while intelligence personnel mine them for whatever they might know about terrorist activities. What intelligence value they have, especially after most of them have been isolated here for more than a year, is a matter of some debate.
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey C. Miller, commanding officer at Guantanamo, said in an interview, "We continue to get intelligence information from this crowd." But other administration officials suggested that the intelligence haul had been largely played out.
For one thing, the officials said, only a small number of the detainees are members of Al Qaeda. The rest have either been determined to be nobodies, rounded up in the chaotic aftermath of the war, or presumed to be nobodies whose state has not yet been determined.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld offered an explanation of the thinking behind the indefinite regime at Guantanamo when he once suggested that the detainees were being held not necessarily for what they had done but for what they might do.
The Swedish prisoner's father, Halima Ghezali, interviewed by telephone from Orebro, Sweden, said his son, Mehdi, went to Pakistan to study Islamic jurisprudence before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "He had no contact with the Taliban," Mr. Ghezali said. "He is not Al Qaeda."
He said that Swedish intelligence officials who visited his son at Guantanamo had told him that they had informed the American authorities that they did not believe that his son was involved in any improper behavior. He said the Swedish authorities had told him that the Americans agreed he had no connection to any illegal groups. So why is he there so long?" Mr. Ghezali said. His son was arrested in December 2001.
Similar accounts were given by other relatives of Dr. Nauimi's clients who were interviewed from Canada and Saudi Arabia. One client, an employee of Al Jazeera, the Arab television network, wrote letters home to his wife in Qatar that showed an intense Muslim fervor that she said did not exist before he was jailed but was probably a result of his isolation with the Koran.
Dr. Nauimi, while maintaining the innocence of all his clients, offered a clue as to how many came to be regarded suspiciously and detained. For the most part, he said, they were sympathizers with the Taliban and support the idea of a fundamentalist Islamic state. Most, he said, attended summer camps in Pakistan that taught them how to use weapons, and preached strongly negative views of the United States and Israel. "They learn to make jihad, yes," he said. "But that's not illegal."
He said that going to the military camps was, for many in the Islamic world, a kind of summer ritual. "It's like going camping," he said.
All the detainees are now housed in a more modern center known as Camp Delta, which occupies 20 acres on the southeast corner of the base. Each cell has a basic through-the-floor toilet, a sink and a bed. Although the climate is scorching, the temperature in the cells is made tolerable by electric ventilators on the ceilings and the ocean breezes that waft through the camp.
Privileges like exercise time and reading material are used as disciplinary tools, said Command Sgt. Maj. John Vannatta, the superintendent, a reservist who in civilian life is a superintendent of an Indiana state penitentiary.
The detainees are served at least two hot meals a day and some are rewarded with treats like ice cream and dates when they cooperate, said Chief Warrant officer James Kluck, the food service director, who in civilian life looks after the food needs of a dormitory at the University of Michigan.
Chaplain Yee helped rearrange the meal schedule to take account of the Ramadan fast. He also calmed skeptical detainees by showing them a certificate in Arabic from the camp's food wholesaler certifying that the meat was Halal, or prepared with the appropriate Islamic procedures.
Posters in Arabic and English in the hospital and elsewhere show an older man tending to a younger man with the caption: "The road to return must be paved with complete truth and cooperation. I know!!!"
In a new medium-security center that is being used as a kind of halfway house before release, inmates are allowed to congregate and are given better rations. It has special foot washing sinks used by Muslims, Sergeant Major Vannatta said, and currently houses 40 detainees.
The inmates receive high-level military medical care, Officials said, and in the early days many of their war wounds were treated. The modern hospital has also performed complicated surgeries, including a cardiac bypass on one detainee.
There is some dispute as to the cause of some 25 suicide attempts at the camp and the fact that more than 5 percent of the detainees are being treated with antidepressants.
Capt. Albert Shimkus, the chief medical officer, said in an interview that for the most part, those prisoners arrived already suffering from mental illness. Some outside experts disagree and say depression is a logical consequence of being imprisoned with no certainty about the future.
Dr. Nauimi said the most serious suicide attempt involved one of his clients, a Saudi schoolteacher named Mish al-Hahrbi. He said the teacher became desperate over not knowing what his future held and tried to hang himself. He was resuscitated but is unlikely to recover from a severe hemorrhage, the lawyer said.
The main part of the 45 square-mile base is screened off from Camp Delta by a small range of bluffs. Like most military bases, it is a slice of America with a McDonald's, the only one in Cuba, and a Subway shop. Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken are coming soon.
The United States first leased Guantanamo from Cuba in 1903 as a coaling station and under the agreement, it may stay on the property as long as it maintains a presence.
Relations between the American and Cuban military commands are generally cordial, said Capt. Les McCoy, who commands the Naval base and communicates regularly by e-mail with his Cuban counterpart, Brig. Gen. Solar Hernandez, who commands the brigade on the other side of the fence. Once a month, they meet at the Navy camp's northeast gate to hold talks and share a meal. "It's always cordial," Captain McCoy said. "We never discuss politics. Never."