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Guantanamo calm as deadline shifts

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Guantanamo Bay

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Jonathan Beale reports from Guantanamo Bay prison

The deadline President Obama set to close down Guantanamo is fast approaching.

But at the US military outpost on the island of Cuba there is little to suggest it is going to happen soon.

In fact, the president has now had to admit he will not be able to meet his deadline of 22 January 2010.

Among the soldiers and sailors who work at Guantanamo, it has hardly come as a surprise. It is almost as if few here believed the president would be able to keep his promise - at least not yet.

'Better atmosphere'

The officer in charge of the detention camp, Rear Adm Tom Copeman, says he has already prepared contingency plans.

They include rotating the guards on the base right up until the end of 2010. Rear Adm Copeman says he still expects to carry out his orders to close down the camp - he will be the commander here until June 2011.

He just has not got a new closing date yet.

So for now at Guantanamo it is business as usual.

At camp five - a maximum security facility - construction workers are even carrying out improvements and repairs.

Efforts are also under way to improve life at the camp.

Military and civilian staff we spoke to say that the atmosphere has got better - ever since President Obama signed the executive order to shut Guantanamo.

The number of assaults is down.

Detainees praying
The vast majority of detainees are deemed "compliant"

According to the military, some detainees used to regularly throw their "bodily fluids" at the guards.

It still happens, but not as much. The vast majority of detainees are now deemed "compliant".

That means that 70% of the "prison" population are now allowed to live communally for up to 20 hours a day.

In camp six we saw detainees in art classes, or swapping library books, or bringing their concerns to a camp commander.

They even get to watch satellite TV - Al-Jazeera English and a few sports channels. They can order DVDs - the camp librarian says the Harry Potter movies are a favourite.

They get to read selected newspapers - after the contents have been screened.

References to sex or violence are cut out. That includes adverts for Viagra or references to the war in Afghanistan.

Clearance

That said, the media are still not allowed to talk to any detainee to get their side of the story.

We are not permitted to film their faces.

All video and photos taken inside the camp must be cleared by the camp's "operation security" before publication or broadcast.

Detainees are still shackled whenever they are moved - or even sitting down.

And 26 of them - more than 10% of the population - are on hunger strike.

Some have been for years.

Twenty-four of these are being force fed, although the medic at the camp hospital claimed that most of those on hunger strike are just doing what they are told by their "leaders".

Detainee and soldier walk past each at other at the camp

He claimed that force-feeding through a tube inserted in their nose was a "benign" experience and that the detainees enjoyed choosing their favourite flavour formula that contains the nutrients they need to survive.

Like many who work here the medic did not want us to show his face.

Badges identifying names of the military staff are removed upon entering the camp.

We spoke to one of the camp's "cultural advisors".

Zac - who is originally from Jordan - has been working at the camp since 2005.

He communicates between the detainees and the staff.

He teaches new guards about Islamic cultural differences and sensitivities, and brings the concerns of detainees to their attention.

He questions some of the negative stories that have been published about Guantanamo - such as guards urinating or treading on the Koran.

In his view detainees get treated better in Guantanamo than any other prison in the United States.

He also says the detainees now have hope.

Detainees stand during an early morning Islamic prayer at Guantanamo Bay
More than 200 people are being detained at the camp

Some clutch the paper that states they have been "cleared for release".

But they are often left locked up as they wait for countries to offer to take them.

Even with the election of President Obama there has been no rush to the door.

News of the delay in closing Guantanamo is slowly filtering through.

Detainees are kept abreast of the latest developments.

The order to transfer the camp's most infamous inmate - Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - has been posted in all the camps.

The alleged mastermind of the attacks on 11 September 2001, who is held at the secret camp seven, has also been informed himself.

Rear Adm Copeman describes Mr Mohammed's reaction to the announcement, that he will be tried in a federal court in New York, as "stoic".

The news was delivered by Col Bruce Vargo who went to see Mr Mohammed and the four co-accused.

Col Vargo, who tells me that he knows Mr Mohammed "very well", adds that he seemed to be expecting the decision.

Mr Mohammed simply asked a few questions such as when it would happen.

When I ask the colonel if Mr Mohammed is looking forward to his day in court, he simply smiles and says "I think you know the answer."

He has already witnessed the latter's performances in Guantanamo's soon-to-be closed military court.



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