President Bush promised a "different kind of war" after the 11 September attacks, and no place on earth better illustrates quite how different than Camp X-Ray, the prison camp established on the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

It seemed extraordinary enough, back in late 2001, that detainees would be flown halfway around the world from the war in Afghanistan to the eastern tip of Cuba. But that was only the start of it. The hundreds of men, suspected members of either the Taliban or al-Qa'ida, were not to be regarded as conventional prisoners of war. Instead, the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, told us, they were being categorised as "enemy combatants", subject neither to the Geneva Conventions nor to the purview of the US civilian court system.

In other words, they were subject to indefinite detention, without access to a lawyer, without the privilege of knowing why they were being held or what they were accused of. Even if they were to come to trial, they would appear before a military commission whose three-judge panel would have sole discretion to convict them and, if they so chose, to sentence them to death.

As the prisoner numbers increased - now believed to be about 675 - the arrangements at Guantanamo Bay provoked howls of protest from human rights lawyers and foreign governments, particularly those - like Britain - which had nationals inside the prison camp. A number of inmates, seeing not even a glimmer of hope for the future, have attempted suicide. At least 10 are believed to be children, kept in a separate section of the camp known as Camp Iguana.

At first, US authorities stonewalled on almost everything. The prisoners could not be identified, their value as intelligence sources could not be discussed, access to lawyers could not be permitted - all for reasons of national security, they said.

In December, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that detainees must be granted access to legal counsel. The justices said Guantanamo Bay risked becoming a "legal black hole" from which there was no escape.

This has led to a flurry of other legal challenges, including a class-action suit against President George Bush and his administration seeking $1.1bn (£581m) in damages.

"Unlike earlier wars, the struggle against terrorism is potentially never-ending," a group of defence lawyers wrote in a recent brief. "The Constitution cannot countenance an open-ended presidential power, with no civilian review whatsoever, to try anyone the President deems subject to a military tribunal, whose rules and judges have been selected by the prosecuting authority itself."

Even before yesterday's announcement that five British prisoners were to be released, the Bush administration had softened its line; some of the men had their names released and were able to obtain lawyers, and at the end of January, three teenagers were released and returned to Afghanistan. Earlier this month, Mr Rumsfeld stated that inmates would be allowed to appeal against their detention to a special panel which would review their cases annually to determine whether they still posed a threat - or indeed, if they ever did.


The US has released 87 detainees from the camp, most to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Four have been sent to Saudi Arabia under "continued detention."

Hamed Abderrahman Ahmad, 29, from Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta, was released in February. He is being charged by the Spanish High Court Judge Baltasar Garzon with having links to an al-Qa'ida cell in Spain.

Mohammad Sagheer, 51, is suing the US for $10.4m (£5.5m) in compensation for the "losses" he suffered. He was released in October 2002 after a year in prison.

Negotiations are under way for the release of 10 Sudanese detainees after two Sudanese captives were released last week.

Mohammed Ismail Agha, 15, was one of three teenagers released at the end of January. The US has freed more than 24 Afghans from Guantanamo.

Abdurahman Khadr, 20, a Canadian, was arrested in November 2001. He was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in early 2003 and released and sent to Afghanistan in July 2003. His brother Omar Khadr, 17, is still in Guantanamo.

Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, a Danish man held since February 2002, is soon to be released. He will not face charges in Denmark.


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