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Week of 5.19.06

Guantanamo Bay's Peculiar History

[NOTE: This page was updated 7/28/06 in conjunction with the airing of The Prisoner]

Detainees are shown to their new living quarters in a medium security facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photo: John F. Williams, DoD
Detainees are shown to their living quarters in a medium security facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photo: John F. Williams, DoD
The United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was established in 1898 when the U.S. took control of Cuba from Spain at the end of the Spanish-American War.

The U.S. government obtained a perpetual lease from the Cuban government that began on February 23, 1903. The U.S. maintained the base even after it severed relations with the country following the Cuban Revolution.

Toward the end of the 20th century, the base was used as a detention center for Cuban and Haitian refugees, until the camp was declared unconstitutional by a U.S. District Court judge in 1993.

Since early 2002, the U.S. has used its naval base at Guantanamo as a prison camp for detainees first from Afghanistan and later from Iraq. The prison camp has been widely criticized by members of the international community for mistreating inmates and holding them without trial.

Powell For Closure

Earlier this month, the Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell added his voice calling for the immediate closure of the prison camp.

"The value of holding prisoners there was unclear, but the price we were paying around the world for doing so was obvious," Powell said.

The U.S had long held that those detained at Guantanamo are "enemy combatants" to whom normal legal rules and protections, such as the Geneva Conventions, do not apply. Only ten of the estimated 450 prisoners currently being held there have been formally charged.

But that could change soon following a Supreme Court ruling last month stating that international law does apply to "enemy combatants." Congress is scrambling to come up with an agreement on how to try terrorism suspects following the decision.

Triple Suicide

"The value of holding prisoners there was unclear, but the price we were paying around the world for doing so was obvious," Powell said.
The apparent triple suicide at the prison camp in June has drawn renewed criticism of Guantanamo and calls for it to be closed.

Allegations of mistreatment and abuse have come out of the prison camp since it first began admitting prisoners. These include the following:

  • The United Nations alleged in a May 2006 report that the U.S. committed acts amounting to torture at Guantanamo Bay. The group cited methods such as sexual humiliation, a form of mock drowning known as "water boarding", and the use of dogs to scare detainees.

  • Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have called for all those held to be given a fair trial according to international law. In a report out earlier this year Amnesty International said, "fears for the physical and psychological welfare of the detainees increase as each day of indefinite detention passes."

  • Representatives of detainees have repeatedly complained that many inmates have been denied access to lawyers.

The Pentagon insists prisoners are treated humanely and fairly at Guantanamo Bay. It adds that terrorists are trained to allege torture to gain sympathy from the public.

In May, Britain's attorney general Lord Peter Goldsmith echoed calls by human rights groups and the U.N. urging the U.S. to close down the prison camp. He called its existence "unacceptable."

One of America's staunchest allies in the "war on terror," British Prime Minister Tony Blair, agrees that "it would be better if it was closed." In an apparent change of stance, President George Bush told German TV earlier this month that he would "very much like to end Guantanamo."

More on Guantanamo Bay:

NOW: Guantanamo, the Supreme Court, and Prisoner Rights, The Prisoner

History News Network: How Did Guantanamo Become a Prison?

Navy: Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay