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When the help of Allah comes and the Victory/ And thou seest men entering the religion of Allah in crowds / Glorify thy Lord with His praise and seek His forgiveness./ Surely He is oft-returning with mercy.

The men sway back and forth, trance-like, as they recite these words in Arabic. Cross-legged on the floor, eyes cast downward past their greying beards to the Korans in their laps. We watch them through the diamond cutouts of a chain-link fence, topped with endless curls of barbed wire. In the periphery, armed soldiers keep watch from the guard towers. A military welcome sign down the road proclaims that the "value of the week" is "Pride." It is daytime, and the Cuban sun beats down on the prison camp, but daytime can last well beyond sunset here - there are floodlights everywhere.

This is Camp 4, the most pleasant of the notorious detention camps at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and home to the most co-operative of the 275 prisoners here, including the last Western citizen in Guantanamo, 21-year-old Canadian Omar Khadr.

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In the 110-year history of the base, the six-year duration of the "war on terror" detention camps is a blip. And yet it is images from this time period - of bound Muslim men in orange jumpsuits, on their knees before their U.S. captors - that will probably come to define a base that was once known for little more than processing migrants and upsetting the Cuban government.

Since opening in 2002, the Guantanamo facilities have become the target of angry criticism around the world. Every remaining candidate for U.S. president, including Republican John McCain, has said they should be shut down.

However, no one has a satisfying answer to what would become of its prisoners after that.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush's administration is preparing to launch the most important trials ever to take place here, trying to prove its case against the men accused of masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But that effort could be complicated by an imminent Supreme Court decision on whether Guantanamo inmates can challenge the grounds for their detention in a U.S. court.

None of that is mentioned as the reporters tour Camp 4. We view the inside of a communal cell, and soldiers note that every room in the camp has an arrow pointing in the direction of Mecca. We walk past copies of the Geneva Conventions, posted on billboards for detainees to read in multiple languages.

And as the Camp 4 tour nears an end, we watch the detainees chanting under the shade of an awning, but we are not allowed to speak to them.

"Okay, let's go, guys," a soldier tells us. "We don't want to bother them while they're praying."

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The men are actually just reading the Koran, but the intention is clear: The last thing the U.S. military wants on this tightly controlled tour is to shatter the calm. We are shuffled into waiting vans to proceed to Camp 5 and Camp 6, maximum-security detention camps where prisoners are held in isolation for upward of 22 hours a day, subject to visual checks by guards every three minutes.

(The earlier facilities, Camps 1, 2 and 3, were shut down in January of this year. In June of 2006, three prisoners hanged themselves in Camp 1, the most lenient of the set.)

We will not be visiting Camp 7, reserved for the "highest value" detainees, including the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The very existence of Camp 7 was, until recently, a secret; its location and procedures still are.

So far, only one person has been convicted of a crime in a Guantanamo court - an Australian man who pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism, served a nine-month sentence in his homeland and is now free. The rest of the cases have been plagued by everything from inconsistent translators to accidental disclosure of classified documents. With increasing consistency, the men charged have chosen to boycott their own trials.

Of the 280 prisoners here, the U.S. plans to charge about 80. An additional 70 have been deemed "no longer a threat," a term that dodges the possibility that an innocent person was ever imprisoned here.

No one seems to know what will happen to the remainder. Some detainees say they will be tortured if returned to their homelands. In many cases, whether considered a threat or not, no country will take them.

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At least for the time being, then, the detention camps remain, tucked away not far from the quiet, perfectly suburban neighbourhoods that are home to many officers stationed at the naval base. "Gitmo" is actually a pretty nice place to live, one soldier tells me as we drive. The crime rate is very low.

The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is a place where almost everything exists in close proximity to its exact opposite.

This space to let

In 1898, a U.S. Marine Corps battalion became the first to camp at Guantanamo Bay during the Spanish-American War. Over the next 30 years, the Cuban and American governments would agree to a deal whereby the U.S. leased 45 square miles around the bay for about 2,000 gold coins a year. The only way to break the lease was by mutual consent, which is why the U.S. refused to shut the base after the communist regime took over in Havana. The U.S. still sends the Cuban government annual cheques for the 2,000 gold coins - a little more than $4,000 - but they are never cashed.

For much of its history, Guantanamo Bay has functioned as a refuelling station and a centre for "migrant ops," handling refugees from places such as Haiti and Cuba. In the late 1990s, president Bill Clinton briefly considered housing thousands of refugees from Kosovo there.

Once a month, the American camp commander and his Cuban counterpart meet near the northeast gate to talk about upcoming events. The two sides carry out mass casualty and fire drills. Certain medical-evacuation flights out of the base are cleared to fly through Cuban airspace, to save time getting to the mainland.

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The first prisoners from Afghanistan touched down at Guantanamo Bay in early 2002, just months after Mr. Bush created military commissions to try suspected al-Qaeda members for war crimes.

The first prisoners were housed in a facility called Camp X-Ray. The camp, a series of small connected cages, was effectively shut down after three months, but soldiers complain that photos of the camp - showing prisoners in orange jumpsuits, goggles and face masks - have become permanently associated with the detainee operation.

Today, Camp X-Ray is overrun with weeds and wasp nests and all but abandoned, but its possible use as evidence in future court cases keeps it from being torn down. The adjacent interrogation rooms, which look like dilapidated summer-camp shacks from a bad horror movie, are falling apart. The wooden floorboards connecting the rooms creak and moan with every footstep. Most of the rooms are now empty or used for unrelated storage. A stack of chairs sits in one room. In another, there's nothing but a sign hanging on the wall, written on loose-leaf paper: "Clean up after yourself."

In the years since detainees were moved from Camp X-Ray, their numbers have dropped. Through political negotiations, the U.S. has managed to find overseas homes for some of the prisoners, while other countries have openly called for the return of their citizens. Recently, a planeload of Saudi prisoners secretly departed from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia, much to the consternation of journalists staying at a building near the naval base airport, who found out about the flight only after the fact.

As has been repeatedly stated by human-rights groups and Mr. Khadr's lawyers, Canada is the only Western nation that has not secured the release of its citizens from Guantanamo Bay.

Mr. Khadr lives in Camp 4, indicating that he is one of the most co-operative prisoners on the site. (Uniform colour is another sign - the most compliant prisoners wear white, less co-operative prisoners wear brown and the least co-operative orange.)

Camp 4's perks are abundant, and chief among them is fresh air. Prisoners spend much of their time outside. There is a basketball net and a makeshift soccer pitch in the dirt. Laundry hangs on clotheslines against the chain-link fences.

Inside, detainees can also watch TV together, mostly soccer matches and nature programs. The officer in charge says the detainees' favourite show is the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch.

Prisoners are provided with nightshades, similar to those worn by sleeping airline passengers, because in the detention camps, the lights never go out. There is also a classroom, decorated with brightly coloured printouts of the Pashtu alphabet, where prisoners can attend language classes. A pair of leg shackles is bolted to the ground below every seat.

The comparative luxury of Camp 4 becomes clear only when the tour moves on to Camp 5.

Designed after a U.S. maximum-security prison, Camp 5 has no communal living. Prisoners here spend about 22 hours a day in isolation cells, with soldiers checking on them through slits in the doors every three minutes. When the reporters arrive, guards place covers on the slits. Soon, the prisoners begin yelling in Arabic and slamming the walls, the sound reverberating through the hallway.

It doesn't take long before the soldiers cut short this portion of the tour and usher the reporters outside so they can remove the slits again.

In Camps 5 and 6, prisoners are given 30 sheets of toilet paper at a time, as opposed to a whole roll. Toothpaste comes in what look like clear fast-food-condiment packets.

Inside a cramped Camp 6 show cell, there is a single bed and a metal toilet. There is a coat hanger on the wall. Put more than a few pounds of weight on the hanger and it swings downward like a toggle switch, so detainees cannot use it to hang themselves.

In all camps, detainees have 24-hour access to medical care, the military says. The medical complex within Camp 6 is large and varied. In the corner of one room rest about half a dozen prosthetic legs. In another, there is a "Faces Pain Scale" instructional poster. The poster features several crudely drawn cartoon faces. The faces vary in expression from no pain to "very much pain," which patients are supposed to use to indicate their own conditions to doctors or nurses.

While walking through the maximum-security facilities, reporters see one detainee allowed into the outside caged yard for a break from his cell. The prisoner sits, almost motionless, near one corner of the yard, not far from what appear to be exercise machines.

A few feet away stands a guard wearing gloves and a face mask. It is a common occurrence, our tour guides say, for detainees to throw feces and urine at the guards. In Camp 4, such an act might get a detainee sent to one of the other two camps. In Camps 5 and 6, it's not clear what the prisoners have to lose.

Standing outside the entrance to Camp 4, Lieutenant-Colonel Ed Bush tells me, "There is no punishment in Guantanamo - which is why we'll constantly correct you on: 'They're not prisoners and this isn't a prison.'" Col. Bush, who heads up media relations in the detainee operation at Guantanamo, says prisons are all about rehabilitation and punishment, neither of which takes place here.

In a regular prison, he says, if an inmate breaks the rules, time can be added to their sentence as a form of punishment. This doesn't happen at Guantanamo.

Of course, no one here has a sentence to add time to - they haven't been convicted of anything, and the stated purpose of the detainee camps is to keep combatants off the battlefield for the duration of a possibly endless war on terror.

But the military takes its subtle distinctions in language seriously. When a reporter tries to ask a question about prisoners, he is corrected mid-sentence by a nearby soldier: "We don't have prisoners here, sir. We have detainees."

The word interrogation is also rarely used in Guantanamo. All meetings with detainees are referred to as reservations, as in, "The detainee has a reservation at 8."

Ironically, the detainee operation that has brought so much negative attention to the base also helped to spur its revitalization. Guantanamo Bay underwent downsizing during the 1990s, says Captain Mark Leary, the commander of the naval base as a whole. By the time the Joint Task Force and the detainee operation set up shop, only about 2,300 people were on the base. In 2002, that number jumped to about 9,500, putting a huge strain on the base's dilapidated infrastructure.

Because the base can't get its raw materials from Cuba, everything takes longer to build in Guantanamo. But signs of development are everywhere now, from new housing units to fibre-optic lines to sports fields - a complete turnaround for a naval base that Capt. Leary admits was ill prepared to handle the detainee operation.

"I think we've made a little bit of progress, and we'll try to make a bit more progress over the next six months to bring the facilities to a higher standard and improve the infrastructure and be a bit more prepared for the next contingency mission that we might be called upon than we were for this one," he says. "We didn't look far enough into the future for this one."

One of the construction projects almost completed in Guantanamo is Camp Justice - a new tent city and courtroom facility. The state-of-the-art courtroom differs from the current aging one in several ways - for one, in the new court, the media will monitor proceedings from another room, with an audio feed that can be cut off any time something classified comes up.

But as Guantanamo Bay's detention operation moves from prison to courtroom, it is becoming clear that classified information is just one of many challenges it will have to meet.

Trying an empty chair

On March 12 of this year, Mohammed Jawad was led into the Guantanamo Bay courtroom. The Afghan is charged with attempted murder. After some translation issues were worked out, the defendant decried the proceedings as unjust and effectively announced a boycott of the trial.

A month later, Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud Qosi was led into the Guantanamo Bay courtroom. The Sudanese is charged with conspiracy and material support for terrorism. After some translation issues, the defendant decried the proceedings and announced a boycott of the trial.

The following day, Ahmed Muhammed Ahmed Haza Darbi was led into the Guantanamo Bay courtroom. The Saudi is charged with conspiracy. After some translation issues, the defendant decried the proceedings and announced a boycott of the trial.

As the U.S. government moves aggressively to charge and prosecute more Guantanamo Bay detainees, it is increasingly clear that the trials will not go smoothly.

One of the most significant additions to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 - the legislation that is supposed to govern these proceedings, signed into law after the Supreme Court ruled the previous system violated the Geneva Conventions - was the right for defendants to represent themselves, which some detainees had long fought for.

Now, in light of the growing string of court boycotts, it appears that the change has opened the door for what have been termed "empty-chair prosecutions."

In effect, defendants may choose to fire their court-appointed military lawyers, decide to represent themselves and then not show up for court proceedings. (They are forced to attend the first session to hear the charges, but not thereafter.) Whereas in other cases a defence team may still represent a defendant who himself doesn't show up to court, in this scenario there is basically no defence.

In the case of Mr. Qosi, his U.S. military lawyer now faces an ethical dilemma. Navy Reserves Commander Suzanne Lachelier told the court last week that she would have to consult her licensing body, the California state bar, as to whether she is allowed to continue to represent a client who has basically fired her.

Government prosecutors have said the empty-chair scenario would put even more onus on the government to prove its cases carefully. Rights organizations monitoring the trials see it a different way.

"On general perception, it certainly undermines the legitimacy of this process, if there's any legitimacy left," said Jamil Dakwar, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who has been to Guantanamo about half a dozen times to monitor court proceedings. "It will create the impression that this is a total sham."

The boycotts mark a sort of climax to the series of complaints that defendants and their lawyers have expressed, especially about the applicability (or lack thereof) of the U.S. Constitution to the detainees. The very location of Guantanamo Bay naval base plays a role in this legal battle, as the government argues that while detainees are in U.S. custody, they are not on U.S. territory.

Defence lawyers have also complained that their first contact with the people they are supposed to represent comes in the form of notes passed to the detainees by the prison guards, a process they say is hardly conducive to building trust.

Similarly, others criticize the inability of foreign lawyers to gain full legal standing at Guantanamo. "It is clear that if you were in foreign detention for six years, the first thing you want is to not be represented by the same system that has imprisoned you for six years," Mr. Dakwar says.

Ironically, despite vehement condemnation of the process by myriad legal and human-rights groups, and calls by all three Canadian opposition parties to bring Mr. Khadr home, his trial has progressed comparatively smoothly. At least he has decided to show up for hearings, and his U.S. military lawyer, Lieutenant-Commander Bill Kuebler, while denouncing the court system as a political process, has nonetheless decided to play by its rules.

However, Mr. Khadr's case - which has yet to go to trial - has raised two more legal issues. The first is his age. At the time he is alleged to have killed a U.S. soldier in 2002, he was 15. His defence team argues that clearly makes him a child soldier, deserving of rehabilitation rather than punishment. The prosecution rejects the argument in part, they say, because as an "unlawful enemy combatant," Mr. Khadr was never a soldier in the first place.

His case has also highlighted the chasm between the defence's and the prosecution's understandings of what constitutes discoverable evidence. In the past few months, Cmdr. Kuebler has filed dozens of motions asking the government to hand over what he deems relevant evidence.

With few exceptions, prosecution lawyers have objected, often using the argument that they have studied the information in question and found that it contains no evidence that would be helpful to the defence.

Cmdr. Kuebler says his ability to represent Mr. Khadr adequately is compromised by a process in which the prosecution decides what is helpful to the defence and what isn't, further complicated by the fact that much of the information has been collected in haste in war zones.

But some of the U.S. administration's biggest headaches at Guantanamo are related to the detainees the government has chosen not to charge. The Uyghurs make for a good case study.

A number of members of this Muslim minority in China were rounded up and sent to Guantanamo years ago. Now, the U.S. seeks to release them but finds that no country will take them, in part because of fears of spoiling relations with Beijing. China itself is not a suitable destination because of the likelihood that the freed prisoners would be subject to torture. In 2006, Albania finally agreed to take five Uyghurs. The rest remain in Guantanamo, no longer forced to stay but with nowhere else to go.

But at least for those 70 or so detainees deemed no longer a threat, there is the chance that a suitable home may one day be found somewhere in the world.

There are, however, about 130 prisoners in Guantanamo who are, it seems, too innocent to charge and too guilty to let go. One of the biggest obstacles to shutting down Guantanamo is that the U.S. government seems to have no idea what to do with them.

Return to Paradise Island

The chapter that the Camp 4 prisoners were reading from the Koran - the one book to which every Guantanamo inmate is entitled - is called "Al Nasr." Translated, it means "The Victory."

It seemed apt that men who had known few victories in recent years were reading those verses, given their internment in a place rife with similar paradoxes - a U.S. base in Cuba that isn't part of the U.S. or Cuba; a legal system whose very legality is disputed; a prison where there are no prisoners.

Early next month, reporters, lawyers and assorted observers will once again descend on Guantanamo Bay to monitor the latest chapter in the detainee court saga. Omar Khadr will probably make another appearance in court. No longer a 15-year-old, he now sports a deep black beard and broad shoulders. At more than six feet, he towers above his legal team.

But reporters probably won't spend all their time visiting detainee camps and monitoring legal proceedings. They will have a chance to swim in the calm ocean water that makes this place, from a distance, look like something out of a travel brochure; they will visit the Guantanamo Bay gift shops, where they can buy green plush iguanas and pink baby-Ts that describe the place as "Paradise Island" and carry the slogan "The wetter, the better" - staples from when the naval bBase was a less-controversial place.

It is still unclear whether the detainee operation and military-commission system will survive the next administration in Washington. It is equally unclear what mark this six-year-and-counting saga will leave on Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. and the world.

"I think people have to think not only about Gitmo - it's about the paradigm and legal structure that Guantanamo created," the ACLU's Mr. Dakwar says. "A political decision has to be made about the future of those proceedings."

He adds, "I'll believe it when I see it."

Omar El Akkad, a member of The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau, is this year's recipient of the Edward Goff Penny Memorial Prize for journalists under 25.

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