In this February 2002 photo, a detainee from Afghanistan is carried on a stretcher before being interrogated by military officials at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. ((Lynne Sladky/Associated Press))

The first batch of 20 prisoners arrived in Cuba in January 2002, after a 20-hour flight from Afghanistan, to be housed in what would grow into the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

According to the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organization based out of Washington, D.C., the population rose to 558 in 2004, when the Pentagon instituted a review system and the number began to decline. In all, 779 detainees had passed through the facility by late 2008. 

When U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Jan. 22, 2009, to close the centre within a year, the number of detainees at Guantanamo had fallen to 245 men.

It's a long way from that first flight, when the prisoners were brought out in orange overalls, chained to each other — some reports said they were sedated — with their heads hooded. The U.S. called them "unlawful enemy combatants," rather than "prisoners of war."


President Barack Obama signs an executive order closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, on Jan. 22, 2009, in the Oval Office of the White House. ((Charles Dharapak/Associated Press))

The images of prisoners in the orange suits, heads bowed, and reports of alleged abuses at the centre have framed perception of Guantanamo around the world and focused attention, much of it negative, on what was previously a little-known piece of land.

Since 1898

The U.S. outpost at the eastern tip of Cuba is officially known as Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, but for the people stationed there it's called "Gitmo."

The U.S. has occupied the Guantanamo base since 1898, leasing it from Cuba for some $4,000 per year and maintaining it throughout the Cold War. Cuba has refused to cash the rent cheques, calling the 116-square-kilometre base "a dagger pointed at Cuba's heart."

It is in Guantanamo where the detainees from what the U.S. calls the global war on terror have been kept.

There were reports that senior members of al-Qaeda and other "high value" suspects were kept elsewhere, including aboard U.S. naval vessels at sea, the U.S. air base on the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, and Bagram Air Base near Kabul, Afghanistan.

In early 2002, Washington promised to abide by the Geneva Conventions governing POWs, but after the 2004 prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, there were increasing questions just what the U.S. policy is.

The first open-air, high-security prison was known as Camp X-ray. The cells had a metal roof, but each was open to the elements. This precaution was taken in order for guards to be able to see prisoners at all times.

Camp X-ray was replaced in April 2002 by a newly built, long-term prison known as Camp Delta, which can accommodate up to 2,000 prisoners and features enclosed cells, each with its own toilet and running water.

According to the U.S. State Department, in April 2005 there were about 520 detainees on the base from more than 40 countries. At that point, 232 detainees had left Guantanamo Bay: 149 were released and 83 were transferred to other governments.

In January 2005, the U.S. military revealed that 23 prisoners tried to hang or strangle themselves during a mass protest over several days in August 2003. There were 10 such cases on Aug. 22, 2003, alone. However, the military recorded only two of the 23 incidents as suicide attempts.

In 2003, there were also 350 incidents of self-harm, including 130 "hanging gestures."

The Khadr family

In late October 2003, a Canadian, Abdurahman Khadr, was released from the prison, but was sent to Bosnia. From there he returned to Canada, where he told CBC News he was recruited by the U.S. as a double agent.

Abdurahman's younger brother, Omar Khadr, is being held at the Cuba detention centre. Omar is accused of killing a U.S. serviceman in Afghanistan in 2002 and as a 15-year-old was brought to Guantanamo, where he remains as the last Western prisoner.

In February 2005, his family told reporters the boy was being abused at Guantanamo.

Omar Khadr, now 22, is awaiting his fate after a U.S. military judge granted on Jan. 21, 2009, a 120-day adjournment for all war-crimes cases before the military commission at Guantanamo Bay.

In November 2003, five Pakistani prisoners were released and, days later, another 20 left the prison, although their identities and nationalities were not released.

It was only in February of 2004 that the first of the Guantanamo detainees were charged. Two men — Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al-Bahlul of Yemen and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi of Sudan — were charged on Feb. 24, 2004, with conspiracy to commit war crimes.

They were expected to be tried by military tribunal, but those tribunals were suspended when a U.S. court ruled them unconstitutional in November 2004. The Supreme Court later declared them illegal.

In March 2004, the U.S. military released five British prisoners and sent them back to the U.K. Four of the men were arrested under the Terrorism Act. The other was detained by immigration authorities. All five of the men were released without charges.

Three of the men later said they had been systematically abused while in Camp Delta. Their lawyers prepared a 115-page report based on their allegations that they were beaten, injected with drugs, deprived of sleep, hooded, and subjected to body cavity searches, and sexual and religious humiliations.

In January 2005, the Pentagon said it had built a new, 100-cell addition to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, designed to hold people defined by the Pentagon as terror suspects who no longer have intelligence value but who, for lack of evidence or other reasons, will not face military tribunals.

Criticisms erupt

In May 2005, Newsweek magazine ran a story about U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrating the Qur'an to get inmates to talk, including placing the holy book on a toilet and, in one case, flushing it down the toilet. The report sparked anti-American riots in Afghanistan in which 17 people died.

The magazine later retracted the story, saying it was based on a U.S. government source whose story was in doubt. In June 2005, the Pentagon confirmed a list of abuses to the Qur'an, calling them relatively minor.

The abuses included:

  • Splashing urine on a prisoner and his Qur'an.
  • Stepping on and kicking the Qur'an, throwing water on it, and scratching an obscenity on the inside cover.

The commander of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre said there were also 15 cases of detainees abusing their own Qur'ans, including "attempting to flush a Qur'an down the toilet and urinating on the Qur'an."

More challenges

Lawyers continued to challenge the Bush administration policy in Guantanamo.

In January 2005, one U.S. district judge ruled that the prisoners should be covered by the U.S. Constitution, noting, "the right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law is one of the most fundamental rights of the U.S. Constitution." The administration appealed the ruling.

Britain's third most senior judge, Judge Johan Steyn, criticized the U.S. for holding terror suspects in Guantanamo, calling it a "monstrous failure of justice."

"By denying the prisoners the right to raise challenges in a court about their alleged status and treatment, the United States government is in breach of the minimum standards of customary international law," he said.

The International Red Cross has also condemned the prolonged detention of military prisoners at the base.

Review tribunal

In June 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the detainees could challenge their detention in court.

In response, the military set up the Combatant Status Review Tribunals to determine whether the prisoners are being held properly. The tribunals began in late July 2004.

Lawyers for the detainees, however, have said the tribunals are a sham and are ''designed to prevent this court and other district courts from conducting the … proceedings envisioned by the Supreme Court.''

By November 2004, there had been 325 hearings. Only two tribunals recommended that detainees be released. Then the U.S. Federal Court ruled that the Bush administration was wrong when it declared detainees were not entitled to full prisoner of war status, and the hearings were stopped.

Calls made for Gitmo to close

In February 2006, a United Nations human rights report called on the United States to immediately close the Guantanamo detention centre, saying that some of the treatment meted out to detainees there amounted to torture. The UN said the U.S. should release the 500 prisoners or bring them to trial. The U.S. rejected the report's findings.

In April 2006, the U.S. released a list of Guantanamo detainees, in response to a Freedom of Information request by the Associated Press. However, the list only names detainees who passed through the Combatant Status Review Tribunal process in 2004 and 2005.

In May 2006, yet another United Nations report — this one from the United Nations Committee Against Torture — called on the United States to stop using the prison at Guantanamo. The report recommended Washington either release all the prisoners, making sure none are turned over to countries where they will be tortured, or put them on trial.

On June 29, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the military tribunals arranged by the Bush administration for detainees at Guantanamo are illegal. The court said the trials do not conform to any act of Congress, and rejected the argument that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Just two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the White House reversed its position. On July 11, 2006, a U.S. Defence department memo declared that all detainees held in U.S. military custody around the world are entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions, which include treating detainees humanely and giving them trials with judicial guarantees.

On Jan. 22, 2009 — two days after being sworn in as president —Obama signed an executive order to suspend the military commissions and to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year.

The decision, widely lauded at the time, would prove tougher to implement.

Obstacles along the way

One week after the White House issued the order, a military judge rejected its request to suspend the military trial of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused in the bombing of a navy destroyer that killed 17 U.S. sailors in Yemen in 2000. 

The administration had asked for a 120-day suspension in proceedings against some 20 detainees, as it considered whether to continue trying terrorism suspects in the military commissions, revamp the process, or try suspects in other courts.

Then in May 2009, Obama reinstated the controversial military tribunal system for some Guantanamo detainees. He said he had added new protections that will ensure a legitimate forum to prosecute terror suspects, including a ban on evidence obtained by torture.

Another development in May: both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted to keep detainees held in the Guantanamo prison from being transferred to the United States.

Obama, for his part, continued to defend the closure in a May 2009 speech to an audience of military lawyers.

"We are cleaning up something that is — quite simply — a mess; a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis," Obama said.