Grim maze of razor wire, and some humane efforts

US officials insist the 300 detainees at Camp X-Ray are being treated decently

The view from Camp X-Ray is anything but inspiring.

Looking due east through multiple layers of chain-link fence and coils of gleaming razor wire, suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters can clearly see a large white sign in Arabic about 15 feet above the ground. It signals the correct direction to pray. But it's about as close to Mecca as most of them are likely to be in a long, long time.

Beside the sign is a US marine sniper in a watchtower. Beyond the tower are the parched and heavily mined hills of Communist Cuba.

As if the physical circumstances of their confinement weren't grim enough, lingering uncertainty about their future has left many of the 300 detainees from Afghanistan with a mounting sense of hopelessness, according to camp officials.

Will they be treated as prisoners of war or mass murderers? Will they be set free, sent home to face trial, or held indefinitely? The Bush administration has yet to decide.

But as Camp X-Ray begins its third month of operation as a wartime detention facility on this hot and dusty US base in southeastern Cuba, camp officials insist that they are providing humane treatment and services to the detainees in accord with the spirit of the Geneva Conventions.

Some human rights activists concede that while US treatment of the captured men has been anything but a model of hospitality, it does not appear to involve systematic abuse or torture.

The US response to a nearly two-week hunger strike has been to administer intravenous nutrient solutions to prevent the three captives who have refused to eat since March 1 from dying of dehydration. In addition, the International Committee of the Red Cross is permitted open access to the camp to accept and investigate prisoner complaints.

While there have been some incidents involving verbal or other threats against guards, none has resulted in physical injury to anyone, camp officials say.

They emphasize that detainees are receiving the same level of medical care as US service members. That the detainees are offered three Islamic-approved meals a day and are able to practice their religion without hindrance.

"What we are doing here we feel is morally and ethically the right thing to do," says Marine Maj. Stephen Cox. At the same time, he makes no apologies for the deliberate harshness of the eight-foot-by-eight-foot chain-link cages the men reside in. Some observers have described the cells as dog pens for people.

"Humane but not comfortable," is how Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert describes his approach to running the camp.

Living conditions are set to improve soon with construction of a more permanent detention facility that may eventually house up to 2,000 detainees.

Could set a precedent

At issue for human rights activists is whether any aspect of the camp's approach is designed to be punitive rather than merely functional. How the United States treats the men is important, they say, because it could dictate what happens in a future conflict.

"We may face a situation with US service members being captured somewhere down the road, and we would want [humane] standards," says Allister Hodgett of Amnesty International.

General Lehnert and other camp officials say the detainees are receiving better treatment than any American would likely receive if taken prisoner by Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Some cite the case of the US Navy SEAL who was reportedly shot at point-blank range shortly after falling out of a helicopter during a military assault last week in Afghanistan.

Others cite the videotaped murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

But what if Al Qaeda fighters put Americans in a mirror image of Camp X-Ray? Would American officials and service members denounce the treatment as inhumane and a violation of the Geneva accords?

"If I did get captured, I guess I'd be pretty happy to be treated like these guys here," says US Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeff Duncan. He adds that at least he'd be alive and receiving three meals a day.

Sergeant Duncan has flown supply missions into Afghanistan and says he's thought about what might happen if his plane went down in enemy territory. "They probably aren't taking any prisoners," he says. "From what they've already done, I figure you'd be fighting for your life."

Camp X-Ray first opened in the mid-1990s as a place to confine particularly troublesome Cuban migrants who had been intercepted at sea prior to reaching the US. The detention facility was named X-Ray in part because the open-air, chain-link cells provided guards with the ability to see through the walls and closely monitor activities at all times.

The long-dormant camp was dusted off and expanded to 320 cells after Defense officials decided to send suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to Guantanamo while awaiting a final determination of their status.

At the same time, the detainees have been subject to repeated interrogations aimed at gathering intelligence information about possible future terrorist attacks and Al Qaeda operations.

An infamous photograph

From the day the camp opened, it has been subject to charges of abuse. Most of the charges arose after publication of a US Defense Department photograph of the first batch of detainees arriving Jan. 11. It shows several of the men blindfolded and kneeling with their hands bound behind their backs. The photo sparked international outrage as well as accusations of sensory deprivation and torture.

None of it is true, camp officials say. Guards were simply using an abundance of caution while transferring a group of men considered to be extremely dangerous. The blindfolds and other restraints were off in a matter of minutes, they say.

But the suggestion of mistreatment has lingered with some critics. To counter such impressions, military public-affairs officers have anxiously touted to members of the media the medical treatment being offered to detainees. Military surgeons performed 42 separate procedures on 18 different prisoners since the end of January, mostly for untreated battlefield injuries.

Fifteen of the prisoners are still in two special mobile hospital wards set up to deal with the detainees. They are manacled to their beds and are under 24-hour guard by marines.

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