This is the shrinking world of America’s notorious offshore
prison, a scene that underscores how U.S. President Barack Obama is
running out of time – and options – to meet his pledge to close the
compound before he leaves office in January.
Obama has whittled down the number of prisoners to 80, the lowest
since shortly after his predecessor George W. Bush opened the
facility to hold terrorism suspects rounded up overseas following
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But the president faces political and legal obstacles that may prove
insurmountable in his final push to empty the detention center at
the U.S. naval station in Cuba, according to some U.S. officials in
Still, there were growing signs during a carefully scripted media
tour this week that operations are beginning to wind down at the
prison, where many cells now stand empty.
As inmate numbers dwindle - the latest departures being nine Yemenis
sent to Saudi Arabia last weekend - participation also has ebbed in
what was once a widespread hunger strike.
Fewer than five inmates are being force-fed, the chief medical
officer told reporters as he displayed a “restraint chair” of the
type where prisoners are strapped down and nasal tubes inserted
But the 1,100-strong force of military personnel assigned to secure
Guantanamo's far-flung lockups, ranging from communal compounds for
well-behaved prisoners to solitary confinement for those considered
most dangerous, has remained largely unchanged. That works out to
about 14 guards for each current inmate.
Work inside the razor wire is labor-intensive. Squads of guards in
protective visors swarmed through an eerily darkened corridor one
lunch time, preparing to deliver meals in Camp Six, home to the most
Unaware of being watched and recorded through the sound-proof glass,
detainees went about their routines. One waved over a guard and
complained about not having enough pens for his artwork, while
another sat at a steel table doing paperwork.
In Washington, Republican lawmakers are readying for a legal battle
if Obama tries to move prisoners to U.S. soil.
Obama's plan to close Guantanamo, announced two months ago, hinges
on bringing possibly dozens of remaining prisoners deemed too
dangerous to release to maximum-security prisons in the United
States. But that would defy a congressional ban on such transfers.
FEWER DETAINEE DISCIPLINE PROBLEMS
Administration officials have not ruled out that Obama might seek to
bypass Congress and resort to executive action to close the prison
but say privately he probably won't make a decision until after the
November presidential election. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump
and his party rivals vow to keep the jail open if they win the White
[to top of second column]
At its peak, Guantanamo housed nearly 800 prisoners, becoming a
symbol of the excesses of the "war on terror” and synonymous with
accusations of torture. Obama, whose promise to shutter the prison
dates back to the 2008 campaign, has called it a recruitment tool
Nowadays, camp officials credit improved “compliance” by prisoners
to a sense that release is getting closer. Most have been held for
more than a decade without charge or trial.
Only two detainees are listed for misconduct, which can entail
anything from physically assaulting guards to “splashing them with
bodily fluids,” said Army Colonel David Heath, commander of the
Guantanamo guard force.
Hunger strikers, who numbered more than a hundred at the peak of
their protest in 2013, are now just a handful and there is no longer
any need for extraction teams to pull them from their cells for
“enteral feeding” sessions, according to Navy Captain Rich
Quattrone, head of the camp’s medical facilities.
He insisted the process is “safe and humane.”
But Omar Farah, attorney for Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni hunger striker
who lost half his body weight and was among the group sent to Saudi
Arabia, said force-feeding was “utterly humiliating”.
Guantanamo officials remain mindful of other potential sources of
trouble, especially given Islamic religious sensitivities.
For instance, when a reporter entered a model cell meant to display
living conditions and began inspecting a bookshelf, camp officials
rushed over and told her not to touch a copy of the Koran. Her
cameraman was ordered to delete the scene.
At the detainee library, where Harry Potter books are the most
popular items, officials screen out anything deemed to promote
jihadist themes or containing graphic violence or nudity.
Inmates sometimes go a step further. A woman's photo on the cover of
an Arabic-language National Geographic was scribbled over by a
detainee apparently offended by her uncovered face.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Don Durfee and James
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