Tensions are high at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. (Brennan Linsley / AP file)
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GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — The morning routine started before dawn with a prisoner chanting the Muslim call to prayer through a small opening in the heavy steel door of his cell as soldiers with face shields quietly paced in the dimly lit corridor. The calm did not last long.
Within minutes, troops began rushing about, the words “code yellow” echoing through their handheld radios. The emergency was a prisoner in another cellblock who did not appear to be moving, prompting the urgent call to the medics to come check him, something they have been called upon to do many times in recent weeks, said the Army captain in charge of the maximum-security section of the Guantanamo Bay prison known as Camp 5.
“Recently, it’s been happening very frequently,” said the captain, whose name the military would not allow to be released for security reasons.
Officials later said the man who sparked the alarm Thursday was OK, merely faint and dizzy, and he did not have to be hospitalized as others have been amid a weeks-old hunger strike at the prison. Still, it was an illustration of just how tense Guantanamo has become of late, with more than a third of prisoners refusing to eat and nearly everyone locked down for most of the day since a violent clash with guards April 13. At least two detainees have tried to kill themselves since that confrontation between guards in riot gear and prisoners with broomsticks and metal bars.
Prison officials opened the prison to journalists from The Associated Press and three other news organizations this week, portraying the atmosphere as tense but under control at this detention center that has been open for 11 years and now holds 166 men, most without charge.
The visit came with certain restrictions. Among them was a prohibition on identifying by name certain officials, such as the Muslim cultural affairs adviser who blamed the recent troubles, including the expanding hunger strike, on a small group of jihadist “troublemakers” who he says are trying to make sure at least one fellow prisoner commits suicide.
“Are they done? No, they are not done yet. And there will be more than one death,” said the Arab-American adviser, who goes by the name “Zak” and has worked at the prison since September 2005.
Seven prisoners have killed themselves over the years at Guantanamo. The most recent, last September, was Adnan Latif, who took an overdose of prescription psychiatric medicine. Though the government had accused him of training with the Taliban in Afghanistan, he was not being prosecuted nor could he be sent back to his native Yemen, which is considered too unstable to control former Guantanamo prisoners.
It is the uncertainty over when, if ever, the men held at Guantanamo will be released that has caused widespread despair and frustration among prisoners, lawyers for the men say. President Obama ordered the detention center closed upon taking office, but Congress thwarted him and made it harder to move prisoners elsewhere. Releases and transfers have since become rare.
“Until such time as our government starts to do the right thing in connection with Guantanamo Bay, the frustration is only going to continue to build, and I can’t imagine what the outcome will be,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Bogucki, a military lawyer visiting clients at the base this week.
Journalists are not permitted to interview prisoners and can see them only from afar, passing time in cramped recreation pens under a glaring Caribbean sun or, watched on a security monitor via a camera in each cell, pacing back and forth in beige-walled cells.
Prisoners to Guantanamo were first held in open cages, but conditions improved under President George W. Bush and Obama.
In March 2012, officials were proudly saying that 80 percent of the men were living in a communal setting at the prison’s Camp 6, free to spend 22 hours a day roaming about their pods and recreation yards with fellow prisoners, watching more than two dozen satellite television channels and taking language lessons and other classes. The military had begun allowing some to make Skype calls to their families and was about to provide a DVD player to every detainee so they wouldn’t have to fight over what to watch.
Things went bad Feb. 6. That’s when troops went into Camp 6 and began a shakedown for contraband and seized a number of personal items. Prisoners soon began complaining that their Qurans had been mishandled and their treatment had suddenly worsened. Then they launched what has become the most sustained hunger strike in years at the prison.
“Zak,” the Muslim cultural adviser, said troublemakers convinced other prisoners that they needed to shake things up, to flout the rules, if they wanted to get out. “They said, ‘What you are doing right now is not going to teach the world about Guantanamo.’ They got up and preached, and preached and preached,” he said.
The men have charged through their lawyers that guards have kept them from praying and sleeping by being noisy, denied them water, painfully strapped them down to be force-fed. The military denies those allegations specifically and any mistreatment in general.
Army Col. John Bogdan, who is in charge of the guard force, met with detainees and said he couldn’t address their main complaint. “They were asking to be released from Gitmo,” he said. “I can’t do that.”
Officials at the base this week did paint a picture of a Camp 6 that had, in the eyes of some members of the military, grown too lax: Prisoners had hoarded hundreds of bottles of water and food, made weapons out of pieces of exercise equipment and whatever else was at hand. Some threw urine or feces at guards or poked at them with broomsticks through the fence. One managed to secure a contraband iPod, which officials said could have come via a corrupt guard.
The biggest concern was that dozens of men had covered the security cameras in their cells with plastic cereal bowls, making it impossible for guards to monitor them and make sure they weren’t attempting suicide, officials said.
The troops, meanwhile, did not risk entering and perhaps setting off a melee with prisoners — at least not until April 13, when commanders decided to move nearly every prisoner back to individual cells.
“We were trying to be patient and work with them and give them an opportunity to comply,” Bogdan said. “We hit the point where we were accepting too much risk, and it was time to take action.”
The raid touched off a clash between guards and several dozen prisoners, but authorities say it lasted only a few minutes, with two guards and five prisoners suffering minor injuries.
All but a handful of the prison’s 166 prisoners are now in individual cells, allowed out for only about two hours a day, returning to conditions that human rights groups previously called inhumane, especially for men who have not been convicted of a crime.
Bogdan and other officials said they will gradually allow some detainees — even those participating in the hunger strike — to return to communal living if they follow prison rules.
As of Friday, the military counted 63 prisoners on hunger strike, up from 43 during the confrontation, including four in the detainee hospital for observation.