January 12, 2002
Detainees Arrive in Cuba Amid Very Tight Security
By Sue Anne Pressley
U.S. NAVAL BASE, GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- The first detainee to arrive here from Afghanistan appeared just before 3 p.m. in the rear doorway of the Air Force C-141 transport, a manacled figure in a fluorescent-orange jumpsuit and matching cap. Wearing goggles and a turquoise-blue mask and appearing to limp, he was frisked by Marine military police, then loaded onto a waiting bus for his transfer to "Camp X-Ray" – the rudimentary compound of open-air cells that may be his home for a long time.
The procedure was repeated 19 more times as the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters were unloaded at this remote naval station in the Caribbean that is rapidly being transformed into an international terrorist detention facility. The arrival of the first group of captives from the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan came exactly four months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in Washington and New York.
Six of the detainees appeared to resist as they were led off the plane and searched. Twice, military police forced a detainee to his knees briefly, then lifted him back up again. Shouts were sometimes heard, but it was unclear whether they issued from the detainees or the police.
"These represent the worst elements of the al Qaeda and the Taliban – we asked for the bad guys first," said Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, the commander of Joint Task Force 160, the military group brought together a week ago to oversee the incarceration of the enemy fighters.
The detainees were loaded onto two white buses waiting at the base's single airstrip. The buses then were driven onto a Navy ferry for the 20-minute ride across the bay to Camp X-Ray. Ten representatives of the U.S. news media were allowed to view the airstrip operation from a grassy hill about 400 yards way. No cameras were permitted at the site beyond those used by military photographers.
The operation employed the highest security measures. Four Humvees, including three equipped with .50-caliber machine guns and another with a grenade launcher, were ranged around the plane. Forty Marine military police officers with rifles, helmets and face shields stood ready in case there was trouble. Navy medics were on hand, as were two Army soldiers to handle paperwork. A Navy Huey helicopter passed repeatedly over the scene, and an ambulance and several firetrucks were parked nearby.
Though some of the detainees wore leg shackles, none was hooded, as they had been when they boarded the plane in Afghanistan more than 24 hours earlier. At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that one detainee was sedated during the flight – "but that's all."
He and other officials said the use of hoods, shackles and sedatives to transport the captives was appropriate and necessary.
"These are people that would gnaw hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down," Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference. "These are very, very dangerous people, and that's how they're being treated."
Being shackled for so many hours may have been why some of the detainees looked shaky as they were taken from the plane. Some who appeared to resist may simply have been unsteady on their feet.
"I didn't know what to expect," said Lt. Col. Bill Costello, a joint task force spokesman. "Several thoughts went through my mind – I don't know if any of them had been on a plane before. They may have been disoriented and regaining their legs."
While defending their mode of handling the prisoners, Pentagon officials continued to bar news organizations from transmitting photographs of the transport – either as the detainees left Afghanistan or when they arrived at Guantanamo.
"You can't take pictures of them," Rumsfeld said. "That's considered embarrassing for them, and they can't be interviewed, according to the Geneva Convention."
The American Society of Newspaper Editors yesterday asked Rumsfeld to release the photos.
"Whatever the reasoning for suppressing these photos, it should be clear that any problem rests with the handling of prisoners and not with the coverage," Tim J. McGuire, president of the organization, wrote in a letter to Rumsfeld.
Military legal experts interviewed yesterday said that while the Geneva Convention protects prisoners against being made objects of "public curiosity," there are no express restrictions against news organizations taking or publishing photographs of POWs. They said the language is generally interpreted as meaning that prisoners should not be paraded in public and subjected to abuse from crowds.
This U.S. naval base known as Gitmo, the only one located in a communist country, is prepared to receive about 80 more detainees at Camp X-Ray, which is described as a temporary compound. Workers are building more permanent facilities that can eventually house about 2,000 people. There are 361 detainees still in Kandahar. Lehnert said today that he expects "periodic shipments" of more detainees, although he said he is not sure how often or how soon they will arrive.
At Camp X-Ray, Lehnert said, the detainees will receive humane but not comfortable treatment. They will sleep on mats in the single-occupant, 6-by-8-foot cells that have wooden roofs and open chain-link fence sides. They will have "the ability to relieve themselves" in the cells but will be taken to latrines one by one by military police if necessary, said Col. Terry L. Carrico, who is supervising security at the camp.
The detainees will be fed a pork-free diet in deference to Islamic practice, Lehnert said, and will be allowed to "practice the free expression of their religious beliefs."
The former enemy fighters have not yet been granted prisoner-of-war status, meaning that the U.S. military is not obliged to follow the Geneva Convention, but must act in accordance with international law. Representatives of the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent are here to ensure they are treated humanely.
Here on the southern coast of Cuba, the surrounding scenery may be more pleasant to them than what they are accustomed to in Afghanistan – a semi-arid terrain of cacti, heavy brush and stunted trees, surrounded by blue-shadowed hills and the glittering-turquoise waters of the Caribbean and the bay. But there are drawbacks as well – swarms of mosquitoes and temperatures that soar near 90 during the day and can become chilly at night.
As the detainees deplaned, none seemed to look around at his surroundings. Some wore leg chains and walked in tiny steps; one man appeared to be letting the police push him forward onto the bus; a few had to remove their shoes during the search on the tarmac. Their bright-orange attire, including orange socks, made them stand out among the military police in camouflage gear. A police dog strained on a leash nearby.
Just before their departure for the ferry, the military flight crew posed at the back of the plane for a group photograph. After the buses had left, a cleaning crew arrived at the transport plane, cleaning it with disinfectants and taking out bags of garbage.
Staff writer Steve Vogel in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2002, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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