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Will the US adjust life at Guantánamo for detainees?

More access by Red Cross workers is likely, but legal analysts are split on whether the prison camp will be less punitive after an Obama-ordered review.

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Kassem says isolation isn't the only issue. One client, Ahmed Zuhair of Saudi Arabia, has been on a hunger strike since June 2005 to protest his treatment. Officials have ordered him and others to be force-fed while bound in a restraint chair for up to four hours, twice a day.

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"The hunger strikers, like my client, are denied some basic items," Kassem says. "All they have is a prayer rug, a mattress, a thin blanket, their jumpsuits, [flip-flop sandals], and a Koran. No socks. No thermal underwear. No prayer beads. No prayer cap. No access to books or other such luxury items."

He adds, "They are basically punished for being on hunger strike."

On the issue of communication with family, the lawyer says one client received a letter from his 7-year-old daughter. Half of it was blacked out by US censors.

Kassem said six months ago some of his clients were allowed for the first time to call home. "It had been six years since those families had heard their voice."

Four human rights organizations are asking the president to grant them full access to Guantánamo to make their own assessment of the conditions of confinement.

"Opening Guantánamo to full review by human rights organizations would help to restore American legitimacy and standing in the world," directors of the four groups said in a Jan. 30 letter to Obama.

The groups are the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, Human Rights First, and Human Rights Watch.

"We don't actually know what is going on down there," says Geneve Mantri of Amnesty International. "We are trying to get down there to take a look."

One group that already has access to Guantánamo and will probably get more under the new administration is the International Committee of the Red Cross. ICRC representatives have been visiting Guantánamo since 2002.

The committee works behind the scenes to monitor compliance with international human rights norms. The ICRC has expressed concern privately to the US government about widespread use of isolation cells, skimpy due-process protections in military commissions, and barriers to detainees communicating with family members, experts say.

Some legal experts are hopeful about the future direction of policy at Guantánamo. "The military knows how to do this," says Robert Goldman, a professor and codirector of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at Washington College of Law. "If you let the professional military and the military lawyers – and not the ideologues – deal with this, then I think things will be improved."

Others aren't so sure. Kassem says Obama's executive order assigns the Guantánamo review to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who oversaw Guantánamo for two years during the Bush administration.

"It is hard to expect an unbiased self-critique from Secretary of Defense Gates," Kassem says. "He has a vested interest in either signing off on the way things are or making minimal changes."