By R. Jeffrey Smith and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Chinese Uighurs who have been imprisoned for the past month at a new state-of-the-art detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are being held around the clock in near-total isolation, a circumstance their lawyers say is rapidly degrading their mental health, according to an affidavit filed in federal court yesterday.
The lawyers' complaint is the latest step in their efforts to force an expedited review of the Uighurs' confinement by the U.S. Court of Appeals, a review that the Bush administration opposes and that Congress made more difficult in legislation it passed late last year.
The Uighurs' (pronounced weegurs) detention by the U.S. military, after being sold for bounty by Pakistanis in early 2002, has long attracted controversy. The men had just arrived from Afghanistan, where, they said, they had received limited military training because they opposed Chinese government control of their native region. But they said they never were allied with the Taliban or opposed to the United States, and had fled to Pakistan only to escape the U.S. bombing campaign.
By 2005, U.S. military review panels determined that five of the 18 captured Uighurs were "no longer enemy combatants," but they continued to be held at the Guantanamo Bay prison until their release last year. The panels did not reach that conclusion about the other 13, though all had given similar accounts of their activities during the reviews, according to declassified transcripts of the sessions.
U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled in December 2005 that the government was unlawfully imprisoning the Uighurs who were found not to be combatants.
Because China views Uighurs as members of a rebellious ethnic minority, the U.S. government declined to return the five men to China, where they faced retribution, and dozens of other nations refused to accept them. Ultimately they were sent last year from Guantanamo Bay to Albania, where they are housed in a compound run by the United Nations.
Lawyers for the remaining 13 Uighurs say the men were moved in December to Guantanamo Bay's Camp 6, a high-security facility at the base completed last August at a cost of $37.9 million. The lawyers say the government provided no explanation for the move, which came shortly after they filed a court petition in Washington seeking the expedited review.
In Camp 6, the Uighurs are alone in metal cells throughout the day, are prohibited for the most part from conversing with others, and take all their meals through a metal slot in the door, lawyer P. Sabin Willett said in his affidavit, which was based on what he was told during his visit Jan. 15-18. They have little or no access to sunlight or fresh air, have had nothing new to read in their native language for the past several years, and are sometimes told to undertake solitary recreation at night, he said.
"They pass days of infinite tedium and loneliness," according to Willett's court filing. One Uighur's "neighbor is constantly hearing voices, shouting out, and being punished. All describe a feeling of despair . . . and abandonment by the world." Another Uighur, named Abdusumet, spoke of hearing voices himself and appeared extremely anxious during Willett's visit, tapping the floor uncontrollably, he said.
The account matches another offered by Brian Neff, a lawyer who in mid-December visited a Yemeni imprisoned in Camp 6. "Detainees in Camp 6 are not supposed to talk to others, they are punished for shouting, and if they talk during walks outside they will be punished," Neff said in an e-mail yesterday. "We are extremely concerned about the . . . conditions of Camp 6 -- in particular, the fact that the detainees there are being held in near-total isolation, cut off from the outside world and any meaningful contact."
Some other "high-value" detainees are being held at a CIA-run camp at Guantanamo Bay that officials say is reserved for the most dangerous and important suspects, but virtually no information has emerged about their treatment.
Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand, a spokesman at Guantanamo Bay, confirmed that Camp 6, which houses 160 detainees, has no communal living spaces. Its design originally included them, but they were omitted after detainees attacked guards at Camp 4 in May 2006. Detainees eat and pray in their cells, he said.
Durand said that as repairs are completed at Camp 4, where communal spaces still exist, "detainees in Camp 6 will have the opportunity to earn their way into Camp 4" after first passing through another camp with medium-security conditions.
He said that while he cannot comment on specific detainees, all "have regular, daily human contact. In Camp 6 they can communicate with other detainees in the cell block. Detainees pray together through the food ports in their doors. . . . When detainees recreate, they do so in individual units in a recreation yard with access to see and speak to other detainees."
Willett said that one of his clients, named Abdulnasser, contends that he was cleared for release from detention during one of the military's annual administrative reviews. But Willett has been unable to confirm that claim, or determine why none of the other detained Uighurs are aware of such annual reviews.
The Justice Department, in court papers, has maintained that the appellate court should delay reviewing the Uighurs' detention until cases related to other detainees are resolved. It also has said that legislation passed last year by Congress, which created new military panels to try Guantanamo Bay detainees on criminal charges, seriously limits the court's jurisdiction to question government decisions on their detention.