Pearl of the Antilles

The elephant in Guantanamo's living room gets 4200 calories a day and a Koran

More than 280 detainees have been released or transferred from the base. Last year's ARBs approved the release or transfer of over 100 more. They remain in Gitmo as the Department of State negotiates their return home — or political asylum in another country.

But what Colangelo-Bryan and the other attorneys want for their clients is the right to challenge detention in a court of law. The White House says it is under no obligation to charge detainees: They will be held until they no longer present a threat, no longer offer intelligence value, or the war on terror ends. "It's like saying you can hold a drug dealer in jail until the war on drugs is over," Colangelo-Bryan asserts. "International law does not recognize a war against a tactic."

The lawyers were dealt a blow late last year when the Senate outlawed habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo detainees. The Supreme Court had previously confirmed those rights — which require the government to legally justify detention — and the matter is again under review.

Arrow toward Mecca in recreation yard
Emily Witt
Arrow toward Mecca in recreation yard
Board games and books are among the “comfort items” 
detainees receive
Emily Witt
Board games and books are among the “comfort items” detainees receive

In the meantime, the attorneys board the ferry daily to see their clients. They are thoroughly searched outside Camp Echo, a series of huts where detainees are housed in solitary confinement during their lawyers' stay. The attorneys then wait while their clients are delivered and shackled to the floor.

"There are more wires on the wall in there than an electrician sees in a week, but in theory the conversations are private," says Colangelo-Bryan. "And there are cameras that supposedly only monitor the visuals, although not if your guy's trying to kill himself."

Colangelo-Bryan is referring to his Bahraini client, Juma al-Dosari, who attempted suicide on a bathroom break while meeting with the lawyer last year. Al-Dosari, who camp officials say has made twelve serious attempts, had cut one wrist and tried to hang himself. According to Colangelo-Bryan:

It had been maybe five minutes and I hadn't heard anything from Juma.... I opened the door to the room. The first thing I saw was a large patch of red on the otherwise white floor.... I realized it was blood. I looked up and saw something hanging from the inside of the metal mesh wall ... from the cell — where [he] had been left to use the bathroom.... It was Juma. His face and body were covered in blood from a gash to his arm, his eyes had rolled back in his head, and his lips and tongue were swollen.... I yelled to the guards because the door to the cell was locked; even though I was inches from Juma, I couldn't get to him. The guards came in and cut Juma down. A moment or two later, as the guards told me to leave, I heard Juma gasp for air — it was the first sound he had made.

Regardless of legal outcomes, Colangelo-Bryan thinks the lawyers have a purpose here. "Through those meetings, we tell the world what's happening," he says. "It's the most crucial function that we have. It's not that we accept everything [from the detainees] as the gospel truth, but many of their stories are corroborated by government sources." He pauses. "Everyone in Bahrain knows what's going on here."


The majority of Guantanamo detainees are being held for fighting in a war, however untraditional. Only a few — ten at the time of this writing — have been charged with war crimes. Under the traditional rules of war, martial law distinguishes cold-blooded violence from mere violence: Bombing a military convoy? War. Shooting an injured soldier? War crime.

The White House contends that since terrorists unite under the religious principal of Islamic jihad rather than the flag of a nation, the rules of crime and punishment have changed. In November 2001, George Bush drew on precedent last used during World War II, and declared that captured terrorists would be tried by military tribunals rather than the courts. These tribunals can cater to the nature of specific conflicts; they allow classified evidence and secret witnesses.

"How to deal with an enemy combatant who is a potential terrorist is something we don't have much experience in," says Capt. Bruce Roberts, a blue-eyed public affairs officer with a beleaguered demeanor. "We're trying to be humane in their treatment and their detention because we're the United States. [But] let me ask you this: Is it in the best interest of the U.S. to afford terrorists all the same rights — potential or alleged terrorists, that is — as a prisoner of war?"

As might be imagined, security at these trials — called military commissions — is tight. Visitors, who often include representatives from humanitarian and legal watchdog groups, are searched upon entry. Spiral-bound notebooks are prohibited, presumably because a detainee could break out of his shackles, grab a notebook, pull out the coil, and attempt to stab someone before the approximately twenty soldiers and sailors in the room could catch him. A gauntlet of metal detectors and searches precedes entrance.

The commissions are held in a former dentistry clinic converted into a makeshift courthouse. Dark wood podiums, blue curtains, leather chairs, and the Joint Task Force seal decorate an otherwise nondescript room. The presiding officer, a high-ranking military official who serves in the role of judge, wears a black robe over his uniform, although his khaki collar points protrude.

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