Background: Legal Limbo
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GWEN IFILL: In January, the first 20 shackled al-Qaida and Taliban detainees arrived at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. Now, there are 300, held until this week at Camp X-Ray, a makeshift collection of outdoor cells surrounded by razor wire. As the U.S. Military still decides what to do with the detainees, they are now moving to more permanent quarters not far away. The new facility is Camp Delta, which could ultimately hold more than 2,000 international terror suspects.
National Public Radio correspondent David Molpus was in Guantanamo last week. He joins us now. David, welcome.
DAVID MOLPUS: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: So, David, what does it look like down there right now? What is the difference between the old quarters at Camp X-Ray and these new quarters at Camp Delta?
DAVID MOLPUS: Well, the new prison we weren’t able to see very much of except from a distance, but we got quite a detailed description from the military officers who are involved in guarding these prisoners. And essentially, the main advantage is that these… from the military standpoint, is that these are more isolated cells. They are more like boxcars, or, you might say, mobile home units, and each one contains several different cells.
They have a thick wire mesh between the particular units, so each prisoner can see his neighbor on his right or left and talk with them, but they won’t have the clear line of communication and the visibility that they had at Camp X-Ray where they were held in cells that were more like cyclone fences and they could really see through the whole camp and communicate much more easily.
The other advantage is that these new cells have indoor toilets. They are flat to the ground, they flush. That’s been a security concern at Camp X-Ray because each time someone had to go to a port-a- john, they had to be shackled and escorted by guards. So there will be less movement. The other thing is they’ll have beds. They’ll have a little more privacy, I suppose, which is good and bad from the prisoners’ perspective, because some people are concerned that this greater isolation might lead to more depression. Thirteen of the prisoners are already being treated with medications for mental illness.
GWEN IFILL: You talked about what you were allowed to see and what you weren’t allowed to see when you were there. How limited is access to… to the quarters there for outsiders, reporters like yourself?
DAVID MOLPUS: Well, we were allowed to get within ten to twenty yards of Camp X-Ray, the prison that they’ve just exited, and we were able to see the prisoners there for a few minutes. But we were not able to get close to the new prison at all. We were kept at least 150 yards away. Security concerns were the reasons cited for that. We were not able to interview everyone that we wanted to.
For example, the Navy chaplain who’s a Muslim who’s been seeing them and has now been transferred, last week he was there, but we were not able to talk with him. He’s had a great deal of contact with these prisoners, so the security was very tight. You were not allowed any moment of free time anywhere near the prisoners without a military escort, and of course we weren’t allowed to speak to any of them.
GWEN IFILL: Were you… was there any way to gauge or were they willing to describe to you what the mood is now among these prisoners? They’ve been there for five months. They’ve been in fairly elements… we say they’re now going to have beds. Before they had a foam cot, not even cots, foam pads on the ground.
So is there any sense, or did they report about whether there is still, for instance, the hostility that they reported first existed among these prisoners?
DAVID MOLPUS: Well, the guards will tell you that there are good days and bad days with these prisoners, that sometimes that they have been angry and they’ve taken out their frustrations by yelling things particularly at night, these rolling chants of political slogans or religious slogans.
Sometimes they have made threats against the prisoners or against their family members. Sometimes they’ve thrown things at them. But lately most of the guards were saying things have calmed down, there’s been less confrontation. Some of the prisoners are even saying “please” and “thank you.”
And I think there was a great deal of anxiety about this movement. I’m not sure the prisoners knew exactly what the new facility was going to be like. Some of them wanted to stay where they were, but they weren’t allowed to.
GWEN IFILL: Are there any evidence of things like hunger strikes?
DAVID MOLPUS: There are two prisoners who are still on hunger strike. They were brought into a hospital and force fed for a period of time. Last week they were released and sent back into the prison population. They are drinking water on their own.
And the medical people are saying that this is really a pointless exercise, because if they get really in serious trouble again, they’ll just bring them back in the hospital and force feed them again. Most of the prisoners have gone back to eating.
GWEN IFILL: Early on, there were many questions about the treatment of these prisoners, including the accommodations for their religious requirements because so many… because they are Muslims, practicing Muslims. Do these new quarters reflect that at all?
DAVID MOLPUS: They do have wash basins in them and wash basins that are located only a couple of feet off the floor so that the feet can be washed, which is part of the purification and cleansing process that the Muslims are required to go through before prayer. So that’s one answer to that complaint to make it easier for them to pray in a custom that they’re expected to.
GWEN IFILL: And then your last answer, you made a comment about the threat against the prisoners. I think you meant threats against the guards.
DAVID MOLPUS: Yes, I’m sorry.
GWEN IFILL: You were talking… that’s okay.
DAVID MOLPUS: Yes, threats against the guards and their families, and saying if they don’t take out the threats, then some of their friends will.
GWEN IFILL: Any sense about how long this is going to continue? This is a new… fairly permanent headquarters which is being set up. There are 300 there now. The Pentagon announced more are being flown in today. Is this just an open-ended imprisonment?
DAVID MOLPUS: There are… the new facility has room for 400. They’re going to complete 200 more cells by the end of may, we’re told, and they’re not shutting down Camp X-Ray, so they could use that for more prisoners. They expect to be bringing more in as they capture them. And the ones that they already have in Afghanistan, so I expect this will be quite a long time for some of them to be staying there and more will be on the way.
GWEN IFILL: And David, what is the state of the military tribunals which we’ve heard so much about early on in this, that what will eventually be the disposition of these detainees, if not prisoners?
DAVID MOLPUS: The Administration continues to say that the tribunals will take place– perhaps not for all of these prisoners, but certainly for some of them. But there’s no date set on that, no charges have been made against any particular prisoner. The interrogations are going on. All of them have been interrogated once. There’s a second round going on now.
It’s very difficult to tell what the U.S. is learning from this, but most of the officials that we were able to talk to said it’s been slow going. And I was even told that some of the prisoners say, you know, the reason they were in Afghanistan was to find a wife or to study the Koran, not to become terrorists.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, David Molpus, thank you very much.
DAVID MOLPUS: Thank you.