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A year after Sept. 11 attacks, fate of detainees in Cuba remains unclear
By Ian James, Associated Press
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — When the men accused of links to terrorism arrived in Cuba, some were forced to kneel, their hands and feet in shackles and their eyes covered with blackened goggles.
Photographs of their arrival prompted U.S. allies to demand explanations -- and British newspapers to speak of torture. A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, criticism of the detainees' treatment has lessened, but questions are increasingly being asked about what will happen to them.
In a report released Thursday, Amnesty International complained the prisoners are in "legal limbo" and are routinely denied the right to see lawyers, both serious breaches of their human rights.
At least four have attempted suicide at the prison camp in eastern Cuba. The U.S. military says one tried to slash his wrists with a plastic razor and three tried to hang themselves.
Others among the 598 prisoners mark time chatting through diamond-shaped holes in their cell walls, praying in unison and sometimes joking with their American guards.
They have no calendars or clocks to keep track of time. The United States has not announced plans for trials of the detainees and is building more cells, making room for more captives as it considers waging war in Iraq.
"This is a new kind of war," said Lt. Col. Dennis Fink, spokesman for a task force in charge of interrogations. He said investigations of the detainees -- which are shrouded in secrecy -- will be conducted "for as long as it takes."
The U.S. military refuses to identify the captives, saying only that they come from 38 countries and are linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network or the fallen Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan.
The men haven't been charged and aren't allowed lawyers. The families of some have mounted legal challenges, but to no avail.
The detainees' letters to and from home -- censored by the military and delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross -- are their only link to the outside world.
"He writes that he is comfortable, but he feels he has been wronged," said Khaled al-Oda in Kuwait, describing letters from his son, 24-year-old Fawzi al-Oda.
The Americans' silence is aggravating, he said. "They don't say how much longer they will be detained -- two months, three, a year."
The U.S. government says the men could be tried by tribunals, returned home for trial, released or remain in detention.
Most American politicians back the indefinite detention. But U.S. Representative Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, is critical.
"It's too Kafkaesque to have people living in limbo," said Hastings, who in February toured Camp X-ray where the detainees were initially held. "Nobody has any sympathy for terrorists. But all of us have a responsibility to exercise ourselves in a way that gives America the high moral ground."
The prisoners have been moved from Camp X-ray's chain-link cells to a permanent prison, Camp Delta, where solid walls obscure journalists' view. Weeds are rising in the deserted camp, which some human rights activists said resembled rows of animal cages.
After the military flew one detainee, Yaser Esam Hamdi, to a Virginia jail in April upon confirming he was a U.S. citizen born in Louisiana, some critics complained the United States had a double-standard -- to the disadvantage of the foreign-born detainees.
Soldiers who guard detainees say desperation and loneliness are common. Thirty-seven prisoners are being treated or monitored for psychiatric problems. Some are on antidepressants or anti-psychotic drugs.
Kuwaiti detainee Abdulaziz Sayer Owain al-Shammari said in a letter in March that he was refusing food and water to demand freedom, a court hearing, or "to die as I cannot stand life in this place."
Each man is led to an enclosure twice a week for 15 minutes of exercise. Some run in circles. The military says inmates have gained 14 pounds on average.
The Muslim call to prayer wafts from loudspeakers five times a day. Meanwhile, five Muslim inmates have converted to Christianity.
"They just happened to need someone to talk to and saw me walking by," said Maj. Mike Merrill, a Protestant chaplain.
Sometimes the men yell at guards and spit or throw water at them. Other times, they crack jokes.
Sgt. Ylaine Harris, 25, of Clinton, Mississippi, recalled one man who grinned as he told her that he would like a Pepsi and a pizza.
"I just laughed," she said.
Sgt. 1st Class Wes Griffith, 32, of Kansas City, Mo., said the inmates seem to like American music and sometimes sing to the guards.
"I've heard Eminem,"he said. "Britney Spears comes out a lot. I've heard some Led Zeppelin, Van Halen."
The 204 additional cells being built exceed the 50 or so detainees held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Fink, a former investigator for the New York Fire Department who knew victims of the World Trade Center attack, said memories of the attacks remind investigators of their aim in the time-consuming interrogations.
"It's a long process, but it is producing results," he said. "We're
trying to prevent another 9-11."