News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

Guantanamo's 'child soldiers' in limbo

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- In a small ranch-style house perched on a seaside cliff, three young teenagers rise at 6 each morning to start their routine of educational lessons, exercise outside with a soccer ball, and perhaps a game of chess. If hungry, they have a kitchenette with fruit and ice water. If bored, they can sit on the couch and watch a videotape.

But this is no ordinary adolescent lifestyle. The clothes they wear are orange. Their small yard is enclosed by a high fence covered in green tarp, save one cutaway that shows the sea. The door to their bathroom does not shut, lest the military guards at the US Naval Base here lose sight of them for even an instant. And twice a week, a team of psychologists leads group sessions to discuss the trauma these youths ages 13 to 15 may have experienced fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The presence of these "juvenile enemy combatants" at this isolated outpost in the war on terrorism has generated passionate criticism within the international human rights community. But it is hardly the only legal controversy surrounding the military detention and interrogation facility where the United States is indefinitely holding without trial some 660 detainees from 42 countries.

Last week, the US Supreme Court said it would decide this term whether the detainees may challenge their incarceration in court -- an unexpected event that could swamp Guantanamo in litigation over the legality of the detentions under the Constitution and human rights treaties that have become US law such as the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

"If the Supreme Court decides that American courts have jurisdiction, it will go back to the lower courts to pick up the questions they brushed aside," said Detlev Vagts, a professor of international law at Harvard. "There are classically limitations on how long you can detain someone without bringing him before a judge."

Guantanamo's commander, Major General Geoffrey Miller, said in his first interview since the Supreme Court decided to intervene that none of the detainees named in the case -- which has been brought by their next-of-kin -- would be informed of the development.

Nor have the juveniles been told that nearly three months ago Miller recommended that the Defense Department send them home because he had determined that they had been "kidnapped into terrorism," posed a low risk, and had no further intelligence to provide. The recommendation remains on a desk in the Pentagon.

"These juvenile enemy combatants are in the process of being adjudicated for a decision on their transfer for release or for further detention," Miller said. "It's a very thorough and precise process that's done by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. . . . They move as quickly as they possibly can."

But children's rights advocates such as Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch criticize the delay. She contends that the United States has an obligation to re-integrate these "child soldiers" into their home society as quickly as possible under a treaty ratified on Dec. 24, 2002.

After Miller's announcement in August, Becker said, "People had the impression the kids would be let go, but months later they're still there. . . . The longer those kids are kept at Guantanamo, the harder it will be for them to reintegrate into society in Afghanistan."

During a recent tour of the "Iguana House," as the juvenile facility is called, the teens were kept from view but a sense of their lives could be detected. They sleep on single bunks. Their Korans and prayer mats are stacked neatly in a drawer under the television. Their stove is not hooked up and was installed only for "aesthetic purposes."

"They have picked up English and can make short sentences and get their thought or whatever understood," said "Sergeant I," one of several guards who cover their name tags while on duty.

Discipline is rarely necessary but might consist simply of a "time-out," he added. "They are respectful. . . . Some of that is from their culture. Some of it is just the restrictions we put on them."

In August, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a rare public statement warning that despite authorities' "efforts to provide special measures for some of the juveniles," Guantanamo was an inappropriate place to detain them and the agency "worries about the possible psychological impact this experience could have at such an important stage in their development."

Its use of the word "some" was a reference to another issue of contention: The decision to draw the line at 16 instead of 18 when separating juvenile combatants. Brigadier General Mitchell LeClaire, who is second in command, said there are "more than two and fewer than five" older juveniles here.

These older youths live with the adults in the regular prison, dubbed "Camp Delta," which also sits atop a coastal cliff a short drive away. Unlike the Iguana House, Delta has no air conditioning or views of the water. It is surrounded by wire and watched by guards in unpainted plywood towers, on which hang large American flags.

Delta provides two levels of prison security, with more comfortable accommodations given as an incentive to those who cooperate with interrogators and guards. Those in the "medium security" section live in bunk houses of 10 and are allowed to wear white clothing, exercise together daily, and serve collective meals to themselves on picnic tables. Visitors are not allowed to interact with any detainees but may see them from a distance. Most of the men appear to be in their 20s or early 30s and sport bushy beards.

The majority, however, live in 6-foot-8-inch by 8-foot cells. The lights remain on and guards walk back and forth 24 hours a day. These detainees wear orange, are fed individually by guards, and are separated from their neighbors by mesh walls.

"They know you're here," said Colonel Nelson Cannon, Delta's operations commander, during a tour of a cellblock that had been emptied for maintenance. "The rest of the camp knows, too. They have their own informal communication system."

The temperature here is regulated by ocean breezes, though if it gets much hotter than 85 degrees, Cannon said, guards sometimes bring in fans. Detainees are given a thinner mattress than their medium-security counterparts and may be allowed into exercise pens and the shower as little as three times a week -- always shackled at the hands and feet.

Rewards here include access to books, letters from home, and board games. All are issued a Koran, a prayer cap, and prayer beads, though most are given a thin pad instead of a real prayer mat. The Muslim call-to-prayer is played over prison loudspeakers five times a day.

At an on-site hospital, doctors give the detainees regular health and dental checkups. A team of psychologists has about 110 on its watch list, with about 25 percent of those prescribed psychotropic medication.

The tightly scripted tours are designed to show that the United States is taking pains to give the detainees proper care in accordance with the Third Geneva Convention, which was ratified in 1955. These detainees are not, however, given prisoner of war status, which would make them immune from prosecution for attacking enemy soldiers and would assure that any prosecution for war crimes includes the right to appeal to a civilian court.

President Bush has said the Taliban and Al Qaeda broke the laws of war by, for example, not wearing uniforms and targeting civilians, thereby surrendering their POW status.

The Geneva Conventions, however, declares that "should any doubt" emerge about a detainee's status, he is presumed a POW until a "competent tribunal" decides otherwise. None of the detainees at Guantanamo have had such a hearing. But Major John Smith, a military spokesman, argued that because the president made his determination, "there is no doubt" and no hearing is needed.

That legal position was laid out in the early days of the prison, when it was an emergency holding place in the immediate aftermath of the Afghanistan war. As the war on terrorism has continued, however, the prospect of permanently incarcerating people without trial has made even some of Bush's supporters uncomfortable.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, recently told The Globe that the civil liberties problem was on his mind, but that "this is new territory" and there is no obvious solution.

"It gets back to the question of what is the end to the war on terrorism and if it's forever and there is no end for the people held there," he said.

Meanwhile, booming construction -- most of it by a division of Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer Halliburton -- may indicate that the Bush administration intends for this detention operation to endure. By next year, a concrete version of the prison will be open, incorporating much more sophisticated security technologies, according to LeClaire.

"We'll be here as long as the global war on terrorism continues," he said.

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months