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Life harsher in new Guantanamo unit

BEN FOX,
AP
Sunday, February 4, 2007

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - Abdul Helil Mamut's good behavior earned him a spot in a medium-security compound at the Guantanamo Bay prison, where he slept in a barracks, shared leisurely meals with other prisoners and could spend more than half the day in an outdoor recreation area.

But in December, the detainee was among dozens transferred from Camp 4 to the maximum-security Camp 6, the newest section of Guantanamo Bay's military prison.

Now Mamut, an ethnic Uighur from China captured in Pakistan, spends all but two hours a day isolated in his cell. He eats and prays by himself. His only recreation comes in a concrete courtyard surrounded by high walls, separated from other prisoners by a chain-link fence.

The U.S. government says the unit provides detainees with more private and comfortable quarters.

But Mamut and other Uighur prisoners complain their days are now filled with "infinite tedium and loneliness," said Sabin Willett, an attorney for the men, in an affidavit filed in a Washington court.

"All expressed a desperate desire for sunlight, fresh air and someone to speak to," Willett wrote after a January visit to the prison, located on the U.S. military base in southeastern Cuba, where the U.S. holds nearly 400 men suspected of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban.

Wells Dixon, who also represents Uighurs held at Guantanamo, predicted the lack of human interaction in Camp 6 will cause detainees to lose their grip on reality.

"It will very soon become an insane asylum," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview after he returned from the base in January.

The military, however, says Camp 6 has improved the lives of detainees

A guard at Camp 6, an Army sergeant whose name cannot be disclosed under military rules, insisted that the prisoners prefer the new air-conditioned cells and the privacy.

"It's kind of like having their own apartment," he said.

Camp 6 houses about 160 men — more than a third of the total at Guantanamo — and is similar to the highest-security U.S. prisons, even though no one at the prison has been convicted.

When the first detainees arrived in the new unit in December, they found on their bunks two pieces of baklava — a sweet pastry common in the Middle East — to welcome them to their new quarters, according to one prison official.

Originally, Camp 6 was going to be more like Camp 4, with detainees allowed to congregate in a common area and share meals. But the commander of the detention center, Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, said that plan changed after 10 detainees attacked guards in Camp 4 last May and three prisoners committed suicide in June in Camp 1.

"Our understanding of the detainees improved and evolved," Harris said.

In Camp 6, guards handcuff detainees through a slot in the steel door before escorting them to the recreation area.

"They never touch another living thing," Willett said. "They never see, smell, or touch plants, soil, the sea or any creature, except insects."

Willett said he does not know why Mamut, who is about 30, or the other Uighurs were moved out of Camp 4. The military will not discuss individual detainees or decisions about their custody — but officials say tight security is warranted in all cases.

"I firmly believe that the detainee population that we have right now is literally still at war with us," said Army Col. Wade Dennis, the detention center warden. "We have to be constantly vigilant."

Willett believes Mamut does not deserve to be in a high-security section, saying he is among the more than 100 detainees slated for release or transfer from Guantanamo.

Uighurs have been accused by China of leading a violent Islamic separatist movement in the western province of Xinjiang, though their supporters say Beijing uses claims of terrorism as an excuse to crack down on peaceful pro-independence sentiment.

Under U.S. law, they cannot be deported to China because of concern they could face political persecution. Five Uighurs were sent to Albania last year, but other countries have been unwilling to accept the 17 or so remaining in Guantanamo.

Camp 6 was built for $37 million by KBR, a subsidiary of Houston-based Halliburton Co. The military has transferred prisoners there from other parts of the detention center, including from Camps 1, 2 and 3, where detainees were held in steel mesh cells that allowed them to easily communicate with each other but also left guards vulnerable to being spat upon or splashed with other bodily fluids.

Another unit, Camp 5, is reserved for the least compliant and "high value" detainees, who are also kept in individual, solid-wall cells and also allowed outside for only 2 hours a day of recreation in an enclosed area.

Camp 4, where detainees could spend 12-14 hours a day outside and could congregate freely, now holds about 35 prisoners, down from about 180 at the time of the attack on guards in May. Harris said it will never return to its previous size.

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