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Terror suspects could face 'clean version of hell,' as EU court rules on U.S. extradition

Guard towers loom over the administrative maximum security facility, the highest security area at the Federal Prison in Florence, Colo., Wednesday, Feb 21, 2007

Chris McLean/AP

H unit, the special wing for terrorists in the most secure penitentiary in the United States, was described as "a clean version of hell," where prisoners had nearly no contact with other human beings, where the mentally ill screamed at night and hunger strikers were force fed.

At the same time, the place was also trumpeted by government officials as a place where prisoners enjoy natural light and halal food, free copies of USA Today, access to 50 television channels and a chance to progress to increasingly better conditions.

The conflicting portrayals of the "SuperMax" penitentiary were heard by the European Court of Human Rights which ruled Tuesday that six terror suspects could be extradited from the United Kingdom to the U.S.

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At the heart of the men's failed application to stop their extradition was that, if convicted, they would have ended up at the Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility in Florence, Col., where conditions are so strict that they would contravene their human rights.

Even though the court acknowledged that inmates at ADX do face a measure of isolation, it didn't buy the applicants' argument.

"The range of activities and services provided [at ADX]goes beyond what is provided in many prisons in Europe," said the 84-page ruling, which noted that the court had seen worse in penal complaints from Russia or Albania.

Still, the court was shown evidence echoing ADX's reputation as the toughest, most arduous place to serve a sentence in the U.S.

Depositions from ADX officials explained that inmates from H unit are initially granted tens hours of exercise outside their cells each week, along with three escorted showers. Biannual reviews allowed inmates to progress to better conditions.

"They could speak to inmates in adjacent cells using the air ventilation as a voice conduit. They had regular contact with prison staff."

But the court also heard that privileges were curtailed for those "subjected to special administrative measures." Also, lockdowns were frequent and could last days and weeks.

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As a result, contact with staff could be as little as one minute per day.

An American psychiatrist retained by the applicants, Terry Kupers, told the court that "he considered that a supermax prison regime did not amount to sensory deprivation but there was an almost total lack of meaningful human communication."

There were also concerns about mental illness.

"A report had been received of one prisoner who was too ill to write, but was living a cell that he had covered in six inches of rubbish and faeces," the ruling said.

"Several prisoners had stated in witness statements prepared for litigation in the United States courts, that there were mentally ill prisoners at ADX Florence who, because of their conditions, screamed all night, making sleep difficult for others."

Located 145 kilometres south of Denver, ADX Florence, also known as Supermax, is home to an All-Star roster of convicted terrorists.

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It now holds to the far-right bomber Eric Rudolph, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber and several convicted al-Qaeda operatives such as Zacarias Moussaoui, Robert Reid (the shoe bomber) and Mamdouh Salim and Mohamed Al-Owhali, who were involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya.

Inmates allege in past court cases that letters from relatives were sometimes delayed by up to four months, that the USA Today editions they received was a month-old with missing sections, that the only magazine allowed was National Geographic.

Laura Rovner, Director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Denver, told the court that ADX has been described by one of its former wardens as "a clean version of hell."

That warden, Robert Hood, spoke to CBS in 2009 about ADX.

Mr. Hood said he had supervised hundreds of forced feeding on inmates at ADX.

He also explained that inmates are strip-searched before they can go on their recreation break outside their cell.

One inmate, Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack against the World Trade Center, won't comply to the strip searches, saying they are against his beliefs. As a result, he hasn't left his cell in more than a decade, Mr. Hood told CBS.

In its ruling, the European court concluded that should the authorities in the U.S. convict the six men, they would be justified in "strict limitations on their ability to communicate with the outside world."

The concerns about ADX applied to five of the six applicants. The most notorious, Mustafa Kamal Mustafa -- a London-based cleric known as Abu Hamza and described in British tabloids as "hook-handed Hamza" because of a missing forearm -- is not likely to be sent to ADX if convicted because of his poor health.

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