Sydney Morning Herald,  May 26th, 2003

Caroline Overington

The United States is lifting the lid on life at Guantanamo Bay, Caroline Overington writes.

James Kluck is standing over a bubbling pot of curry in the military kitchen at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "Look at this," he says, taking off the lid.

"It's chicken, and it's Halal, which means it was slaughtered in accordance with Muslim traditions, so the detainees can eat it. We make all their meals here, in the same kitchen where we make the military meals.

"Every day we make fresh baguettes and bagels. The detainees get hash browns, fruit, hot tea, and eggs. For dinner it is fish, chicken or beef, with beans and chickpeas. On Fridays there is extra honey, dates and cakes.

"Now, I don't think anybody could look at our menu and say we are doing the wrong thing by the detainees. In fact, the medical personnel have told me that all of them have put on weight, an average of 13 pounds."

Kluck, who is in charge of preparing meals for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, is talking to a group of journalists - one of many soldiers on the base who has agreed to be interviewed by visiting media in an effort to put a better spin on the prison.

The United States was stung by the outrage that followed the release of early pictures of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, who were held in cells open to the hot Cuban sun and forced to wear hoods and shackles.

Human rights groups called the conditions deplorable, and the US found itself battling claims that detainees at Camp X-Ray, which was the name given to the first US military prison on the island, were being mistreated.

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In the months that followed, the US closed Camp X-Ray, and opened a new prison, Camp Delta. This is the facility that the international media is invited to inspect and, so far, more than 400 journalists from 27 countries have taken the opportunity. During three days they are shown around the military base, where 680 prisoners are being held.

Soldiers who guard the prisoners are available for interviews, and the kitchens and cells are flung open so journalists can see the meals that prisoners eat and the beds on which they sleep.

But these are things that matter least. Conditions have improved - the detainees no longer wear hoods and shackles, and each gets a copy of the Koran, plus a bed with an arrow, pointing the way to Mecca - but the status of the prisoners remains the same. They are in legal limbo.

"Of course the conditions of the prison are important, but they are not the main issue," says Kay Bilney, who represents the support group for one of the Australian prisoners, David Hicks.

"David's father is very distressed at the way David has been treated. But for us the biggest issue is that he is not getting help from his own government. Our belief is that David should not be in any prison in Guantanamo Bay.

"[The Prime Minister John] Howard should ask the US to return him, immediately. And then, if there are going to be charges, they should be laid, there should be hearing, and he should get some representation. Remember, even the worst Nazis got a trial."

But neither American nor Australian officials want to talk about the prisoners, and especially not about the Australians, David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. The official line is that they are not "prisoners of war" with rights under the Geneva Convention, but "enemy combatants." They are being held either because they are thought to pose a terrorist threat, or because they are being interrogated.

Our guides at Camp Delta cannot discuss policy or individual detainees. Instead, journalists are introduced to Captain Al Shimkus, who is in charge of the prison hospital. He said about 85 detainees were being treated for depression, and about half of those were taking anti-depressants. The operating room is constantly in use, as the medical team of 100 re-sets broken bones, removes shrapnel, treats infections that result from battlefield amputations and, in one case, opened a blocked artery.

Young soldiers who guard the detainees are also available to the media, including Sergeant Lisa Wells, 21, who said she was harassed "every day. They throw water, urine, semen, toothpaste, whatever they can. They don't like women, is my impression. When I give an order, one of them will say: 'Why would anybody listen to you? Why aren't you home making a baby?"'

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About six weeks ago 68 prisoners who proved they could behave were moved from the high-security section of Camp Delta to a new medium security section, with outdoor picnic tables. Here they share quarters instead of being confined to a single cell. They also get more time outdoors: 20 minutes a day, four times a week. There has been speculation that Hicks had been moved to this part of the prison. But the deputy commander of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay, General James Payne, could not answer questions about Hicks.

"All I can say about that is, when a prisoner's intelligence value has been exhausted and there is no need for more interrogation, and if he is well-behaved, he will be moved to the medium security prison. And from there we make inquiries with the home country, and try to find out whether it is possible to return these people to those countries."

International pressure does seem to have had some impact on the status of other prisoners. In the past month 35 detainees have been released and sent back to Afghanistan, or, in the case of five of them, to Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon is said to be preparing to bring some of the other detainees before a military tribunal. There is no word, yet, on whether either of the Australian prisoners will be among those who get a day in court.


DAVID HICKS Adelaide-born Hicks was captured by the Northern Alliance in November 2001 near the then Taliban-controlled city of Kunduz. He was handed over to the US military after some months in a US military prison in Afghanistan and was taken blindfolded and shackled to Camp X-Ray in January last year.

The 28-year-old Muslim convert has two children from a lapsed de facto relationship in South Australia.

MAMDOUH HABIB Habib, 47, of Sydney, was arrested in Pakistan more than 18 months ago on terrorist links and has been at Guantanamo Bay for nearly a year.

Egyptian-born Mr Habib, an Australian citizen, went to Pakistan to look for an Islamic school for his children. He was seized in Karachi about to board a flight to Australia on October 4, 2001, less than a month after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11.

His wife Maha and their four children wait for him at their home in Birrong, in western Sydney.

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