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U.S.: Congressional Panel Hears Arguments On Guantanamo

Prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility (file photo) (epa) WASHINGTON, March 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The controversy about the Guantanamo Bay detention center for suspected terrorists just won't go away.

"The New York Times" newspaper reported on March 23 that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued unsuccessfully that it be closed because of its bad reputation abroad.

On March 29, a committee of the House of Representatives held a hearing to explore the use of the U.S. naval base in Cuba as a prison, and the law setting up the special courts meant to try the defendants. There were arguments for and against the facility and its courts, But in the end, they didn't seem to change any minds.

A 'Toxic' Brand

Those wanting to close Guantanamo argued that the very reputation of the United States was at stake.

"Political and logistical factors should determine our course," said William Taft, a former State Department legal adviser. "Logistically, I imagine, Guantanamo still has a number of advantages over other options. It seems doubtful, however, that these outweigh the political costs of continuing its operation. At some point a brand becomes so toxic that no amount of Madison Avenue talent can rehabilitate its image."

Taft told the House Armed Service Committee that it was natural for Americans to want to lash out at their enemies after the attacks of September 11, 2001. But he said when a nation reacts emotionally to an event like that, it's best to take the time to temper its response and avoid a possibly unconstitutional overreaction.

Representative Duncan Hunter said prisoners at Guantanamo are treated more humanely than people guilty of lesser crimes are treated at most civilian prisons.

Seeds Of Abu Ghraib

Elisa Massimino, the director of the Washington office of the advocacy group Human Rights First, also testified. She said the administration of President George W. Bush should take a hard look at exactly what is being accomplished by holding about 380 prisoners at Guantanamo.

In Massimino's view, the abuses that began at Guantanamo as early as 2002 directly led to the abuses of prisoners at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

"The most important questions that you all ought to be asking about the current policy now is: Is it smart? Is it working? Does it serve our overall objective? And does it comport with our laws and values?" Massimino said. "And I would say that Guantanamo fails all of those tests. The military commissions have failed to hold terrorists accountable for the most serious crimes, as you've heard. And in addition, the view of Guantanamo as a legal black hole led it to become the laboratory for a policy of calculated cruelty that later migrated to Iraq."

Better Than U.S. Prisons

Patrick Philbin, a former associate deputy U.S. attorney general, conceded that Guantanamo presents problems for the United States reputation. But he testified that it's the only logical place to hold the suspects because it simplifies both security for U.S. citizens and the legal process for both the defendants and the prosecutors.

Besides, Philbin said, the international outcry probably wouldn't end even if the prisoners were held in the United States because critics challenge Washington's right to hold them -- not as prisoners of war, but as "illegal enemy combatants" without the legal rights normally accorded to captive soldiers from uniformed armies.

One member of the committee, Representative Duncan Hunter (Republican, California), rejected the idea that the prisoners were somehow being treated unfairly. He said prisoners at Guantanamo are treated more humanely than people guilty of lesser crimes are treated at most civilian prisons.

Yet, Hunter said, some are demanding that Guantanamo be closed.

"We have to close down Guantanamo, which gives a higher level of health care than most HMOs in America, which serves a better menu than most American families have on a weekly basis, which interrupts proceedings five times a day to broadcast over a public-broadcast system the prayer for the prisoners, which allows them to have exercise, which allows them to have games, which allows them to have entertainment, and which to date has seen not one single murder of a prisoner."

According to Hunter, hundreds of inmates are murdered by one another in civil prisons around the United States each year.

Hunter concluded that to close down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay would be, in his words, to "confirm the myth" that the U.S. mistreats prisoners.

Hunger Strikes And Force-Feeding

Hunter's comments coincided with those of a physician in the U.S. Navy who spoke on March 28 with reporters who were given a tour of select areas of the Guantanamo compound.

A doctor at Guantanamo explains force-feeding to journalists in February 2006 (epa)

The medical officer, who declined to give his name, was asked about complaints that authorities at the detention facility force-feed inmates on hunger strikes. The doctor said the criticism is unjustified, because he and his colleagues are only trying to keep these prisoners alive.

And in some cases, the doctor asserted, the force-fed inmates have expressed gratitude for the treatment.

"Usually, it's not the procedure itself that brings up the question of what we're doing," he said. "It's pretty much a standard medical procedure -- how we would feed someone of they couldn't use their mouth. It's more the detainee's decision to be able to be a hunger striker. From that perspective, it's a little bit more difficult for us. We've had two detainees who have been hunger strikes for greater than 500 days, and both of them have thanked the medical providers for providing this service with the hopes that they might someday go back and see their family."

Reporters on the limited tour also were shown Guantanamo's recreation yards, a new cell block, and the medical suite.

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