Guantanamo remains source of outrage
A black hood covered his eyes, shackles secured his wrists and legs. He felt lightheaded from two days without food and medication that made him sleep during the long flight. Startled by barking guard dogs, he was shouted at by troops in a language he didn't understand.
"We didn't know where we were or what was going to happen to us," Adil al-Zamil, a former Kuwaiti government clerk who was one of the first to arrive at Guantanamo Bay after the base began receiving terror suspects on Jan. 11, 2002. "We were very, very afraid."
In the early days, dogs were used to intimidate prisoners. Detainees were subjected to sleep deprivation and earsplitting rock and rap music. Some, including al-Zamil, said they were shackled in uncomfortable positions for hours.
Today, five years after the first prisoners arrived at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba, the detention camp commander says those aggressive interrogation tactics are gone.
But world outrage over the detention center has grown. Protests around the world will mark the fifth anniversary Thursday of the arrival of the first 20 prisoners at Guantanamo, including a demonstration on the Cuban side of Guantanamo's gate.
Critics say the camp, where hundreds of men face indefinite incarceration, has damaged U.S. credibility and should close.
"It has become iconic in the Muslim world and the wider world ... for everything that the United States has done wrong in the war on terror," said Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.
The military says the detention center is vital as ever. Nearly 400 detainees suspected of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban are still held there.
"What we are doing is an important and integral part of the global war on terror," Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, commander of the detention center, told The Associated Press by telephone on Tuesday. "We're keeping enemies of our nation -- enemy combatants, terrorists if you will -- off the battlefield."
Al-Zamil, 44, insisted Tuesday that he had no links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. He says he had traveled to Afghanistan to work for a charity before being taken into custody in Pakistan and turned over to U.S. forces. He was held in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantanamo in what he believes was February or March of 2002.
He and another Kuwaiti, Saad al-Azmi, were forced onto the tarmac in Guantanamo together.
"We were totally cut off from the world. We didn't know what was going on," al-Zamil said by telephone from Kuwait.
Al-Zamil and al-Azmi later appeared before a military panel that designated them enemy combatants, despite their claims of innocence. The panels considered the cases of 558 detainees and found that all but 38 were enemy combatants and should be held.
Al-Zamil said he was roughed up by guards and interrogators and kept shackled for long periods in cold rooms during his more than three years at the prison.
"Guantanamo is a part of hell," he said.
Al-Azmi, 27, described similar experiences, adding that a female interrogator named "Megan" or "Maggie" danced around him partially undressed, then threatened to have a male guard rape him if he did not confess to terrorist links.
The alleged incidents took place before Harris took command.
"We don't do anything today that's coercive in nature," he said. "I believe we are doing things correctly here."
The detention camp itself has undergone a transformation since the early days when prisoners were kept in metal open-air cages and used buckets for toilets.
Harris said conditions for prisoners are better because of the construction of Camp Five and, just last year, Camp Six -- steel-and-concrete buildings modeled after U.S. prisons.
Human rights groups argue that the buildings, which have solid-wall one-person cells, leave the prisoners more isolated.
The military plans to charge 60 to 80 of the detainees and expects military trials to start next summer, said Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor. "It certainly looks like we're much closer to getting these guys their day in court," he said.
Most of the remaining detainees, however, may never be tried by a military court, and the Military Commissions Act, which President Bush signed in October, deprives them of the right to contest their imprisonment in a civilian court.
Their best hope is that the military's Annual Review Board will determine they no longer pose a threat to the U.S. or possess intelligence value.
So far, the military has released or transferred about 380 detainees. The AP determined that more than half were later released or cleared of charges by their home countries despite former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's description of the detainees as "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth."
The two Kuwaitis were sent home in November 2005 and cleared by a court in their home country of all terrorism charges.
"I'm still trying to regain my life, trying to become a normal citizen," al-Azmi said.
Al-Zamil said he worries about the detainees he left behind.
"They are living in hell as we did," he said. "I pray to God to give them patience. If I was still there I'd be a crazy person."