Guantanamo prison draws protests worldwide

By Esteban Israel
Reuters
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 5:55 PM

GUANTANAMO, Cuba (Reuters) - Demonstrators -- some wearing Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits -- staged protests from Melbourne to London and Washington on Thursday against the U.S. military prison in Cuba where terrorism suspects have been held for years without trial.

A dozen American peace activists, including Cindy Sheehan, marched to the U.S. military enclave in eastern Cuba and held a vigil to demand the detention camp's closure on the fifth anniversary of its creation. They chanted "Guantanamo prison, place of shame, no more torture in our name."

"If dogs were treated like this in my country, there would be an uprising," Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, said as the group placed flowers by a barbed wire fence 5 miles from the naval base that houses the prison.

About 75 to 100 people were arrested after they entered a federal courthouse in the U.S. capital wearing orange T-shirts, waving banners and chanting slogans against the prison, court spokesman Sheldon Snook said. Those arrested have not yet been charged, he said.

The first Guantanamo detainees were flown shackled, blindfolded and wearing orange suits, and were temporarily housed in cages in the heavily guarded camp five years ago, soon after U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in response to the September 11 hijacked-airliner attacks.

More than 770 captives have been held at Guantanamo, of whom only 10 have been charged with crimes. About 395 prisoners remain there, suspected of al Qaeda and Taliban links, kept in modern maximum-security cells.

Speaking at U.N. headquarters on Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged that the prison be closed.

Washington has said the camp is necessary to deal with the particular circumstances of its war on terrorism, but President George W. Bush has acknowledged it is hurting the U.S. image.

Bush has made no moves to close Guantanamo and last year signed legislation barring foreign captives from challenging their detention through the U.S. courts.

'LEGALLY, ETHICALLY AND HUMANELY'

"I can tell you that we are detaining the right people in Guantanamo, we are detaining them legally, ethically and humanely," Col. Lora Tucker, a U.S. military spokeswoman at Guantanamo, said in an e-mail.

Fourteen Guantanamo prisoners were on a hunger strike to protest their detention, including five who were being force-fed. "These numbers are not what we would consider to be unusual," Tucker said.

British citizen Asif Iqbal, who spent two years in Guantanamo only to be released without charges, returned to Cuba for the protest against the camp.

Iqbal, who said he was interrogated endlessly, tortured with sleep deprivation and coerced into signing a false confession, read out letters from other former detainees.

Cuba's communist government, which has denounced the prison as a concentration camp run by its political enemy, allowed the marchers to get to the security perimeter around the base it claims was illegally occupied by the U.S. Navy a century ago.

Zohra Zewawi, a Dubai resident, said her son Omar Deghayes, 37, who has been held in the camp since his arrest in Pakistan in 2002, lost vision in one eye due to abuse. His brother Taher Deghayes said anger over the handling of prisoners at Guantanamo was helping extremists "recruit more and more wannabe terrorists."

SYMBOL OF U.S. ABUSE

In London, about 300 Amnesty International members and volunteers, many also dressed in bright orange suits, protested outside the U.S. Embassy. Some acted as American guards, ordering others to kneel, lie face down on the floor and remain silent.

Demonstrators outside the U.N. office in Rabat urged governments to press the United States to free their citizens jailed in Guantanamo, where five Moroccans are being held.

In Washington, about 100 people gathered in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, carrying signs stating, "The America I believe in would shut down Guantanamo" and "Stop the torture."

"Guantanamo must be closed. It's an embarrassment for this country," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which organized the rally along with Amnesty International USA.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, in a leaked memo quoted by The New York Times in 2004, accused the U.S. military of using tactics "tantamount to torture" on inmates. Three detainees committed suicide in June.

In Melbourne, protesters gathered outside government buildings to demand that Australia's only Guantanamo detainee, David Hicks, be brought home immediately.

Hicks, 31, was arrested in Afghanistan in late 2001 and accused of fighting for al Qaeda. Charges of conspiracy, attempted murder and aiding the enemy were dropped when the U.S. Supreme Court in June rejected the military tribunal system set up by Bush to try foreign terrorism suspects.

"They've been bullying David for five years," his father Terry Hicks told TEN Network television.

(Additional reporting by Paul Tait in Sydney, Tahani Karrar in London, Jane Sutton in Miami, James Vicini and Andy Sullivan in Washington)

© 2007 Reuters