A two-storey maximum security jail modelled on a US prison is being built in Cuba, exactly four years after the first terror suspects were placed in makeshift cells in Guantanamo.
The new building will have air conditioning, a health clinic, recreation yards and arrows pointing to Mecca – the direction Muslims face while praying.
Officials in Gitmo, as soldiers call the base, say the prison will make life better for detainees. But critics fear it underscores that for many prisoners, detention is likely to last a very long time.
“The US government would like to turn Gitmo into a permanent prison camp with no legal recourse for detainees, and to create a permanent legal black hole in which hundreds of individuals are held without ever being charged with crimes,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
When US forces brought the first 20 prisoners into Guantanamo Bay on January 11 2002, they were put into a makeshift jail of open-air cells with walls of chain-link fences.
Contractors are erecting the new two-storey prison at the foot of hills covered with giant cacti, alongside the base’s only other maximum-security facility, which opened in May 2004.
It is expected to be completed in June and will be able to house 200 prisoners, while reducing the manpower needed to guard the prisoners.
“The new detention facilities are built because they’re just more efficient and they improve the quality of life for detainees,” said Army Lt Col Jeremy Martin, who insisted the prison was not a “sign of permanency”.
But senior Bush administration officials have said the war on terror would probably last many years. Some detainees might be held for the duration, said Maj Jane Boomer, a spokeswoman for the Office of Military Commissions, created to try terror suspects.
“They’re not being detained for criminal prosecution,” Boomer said. “They’re being detained to be kept off the battlefield.”
Only nine detainees have been charged since the detention centre opened. Air Force Col Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor, said the military commission has completed several investigations but motions filed by defence lawyers have held up some trials.
Some defence lawyers and human rights observers insist the whole process is illegitimate.
“The US continues to try and assert that Guantanamo is a place that exists sort of beyond the law, that no rules apply,” said Jumana Musa, a legal observer for Amnesty International.
“The whole operation itself, it really runs counter to the fundamental components of human rights law, the idea that nobody can be held arbitrarily and indefinitely.”
The Centre for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit group, has arranged for lawyers to represent about 500 detainees.
“The rule of law has yet to be reinstated in the US battle on terror,” said Barbara Olshansky, the centre’s deputy legal director. “The problem started when the (Bush) administration rejected the Geneva Conventions, which are intended to apply to every armed conflict in the world.”
Of the 750 prisoners brought to Guantanamo since 2002, the military has released 180. It has also transferred another 76 to the custody of other countries, such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Dozens of prisoners have gone on hunger strike – a sign, according to United Nations officials and rights groups, that some have lost hope.
The New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights said up to 200 people went on hunger strike in July, demanding to be put on trial or released. The military said only 52 prisoners were involved.
As of Tuesday, 42 prisoners were staging a hunger strike. Thirty-two of them were being fed by a tube. Hunger strikers have previously claimed that US troops inserted the tubes without using anaesthesia or sedatives to minimise pain, and that tubes were reused without proper sanitisation.
Lt Col Martin said the feeding was “involuntary” but insisted there was no abuse or torture at the prison.