Gitmo's days numbered but grim legacy lives on

Martha Rayner in Canadian Press, January 23, 2009

Part exotic resort, part Middle America, part naval base, part soulless gulag.

The notorious prison camp that occupies this sun-soaked stretch of leased Cuban territory was, in the words of former U.S. president George W. Bush, supposed to house "the worst of the worst" -- terrorists out to "harm America."

Roughly 770 prisoners, from the self-proclaimed architects of the terrorist attacks that started it all on Sept. 11, 2001, to more than 500 others long since freed without charge, have called this place home since its inception eight years ago.

About 245 now remain, among them Canada's Omar Khadr, who was barely 16 when he arrived several months after his capture following a deadly firefight with American troops in Afghanistan in July 2002.

His advocates called him a "child soldier" in need of protection and rehabilitation. The Pentagon called him a killer.

Either way, Khadr found himself inside the prison commonly called "Gitmo" -- a place born of grief, anger and war, where public scrutiny was non-existent and torture commonplace, the chief of the prison's special military tribunals eventually admitted.

"The prison was beyond the reach of law," said Martha Rayner, an associate professor at Fordham University in New York City.

"Ultimately, it could never have any legitimacy."

Fuelled by the vengeful sense of justice that emerged from the ashes of 9-11, Gitmo has all but lost its raison d'etre. The hopeful inauguration of Barack Obama, coupled with Bush's departure, felt like a fatal blow.

Even before taking office, Obama had sealed the prison's fate with a pledge to close it, although for the moment, the facility continues to exist as the new administration works out what to do with its remaining inmates.

But Obama left little doubt on the direction he's taking.

"Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations," he said after taking the oath of office.

"Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."

The beginning of the end came late Tuesday when Obama, his presidency just hours old, ordered U. S. prosecutors to request a 120-day continuance, effectively pulling the plug on the proceedings until May 20.

Then on Thursday, Obama signed orders to close the Guantanamo prison within a year, review the military trials of terror suspects and ban the harshest interrogation methods.

Expected though it has been, Gitmo's closure remains a stunning admission of failure, consigning it almost certainly to a dubious place in American history-- an emblem of might, rather than principle, making right.

On one side of the base, the long disused U. S. military outpost known as Camp X-Ray stands overgrown with dry grass and creepers, with no signs of life beyond the occasional giant Cuban rock iguana.

It was in this camp -- wire cages, really, each measuring little more than two cubic metres -- that the outside world first caught a glimpse of Gitmo's earliest detainees, kneeling in orange jumpsuits, their faces concealed, cowed and powerless.

The camp only lasted a few months, but remained an enduring symbol for the excesses of the U. S. war on terror.