What's going on at Gitmo?

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JOE SKIPPER / REUTERS

IN THE BEDROOM: Each cell has a toilet and an arrow to Mecca

Even as allegations of Koran abuse at the U.S.'s naval base in Cuba were still making headlines, the Pentagon was bracing for a new storm as reporters last week sorted through several thousand pages of transcripts from tribunals in which detainees challenged their designation as enemy combatants. Earlier, as the government prepared to release the transcripts, as required by a Freedom of Information Act filing, military officials reviewed them, looking for "potentially controversial and embarrassing items" about which their superiors should be notified in advance, according to a Pentagon memo that TIME has seen. To make sense of the latest Gitmo controversies, here is a look at Guantanamo during the war on terrorism.

Who is held there? Since the first 20 prisoners were taken there from Afghanistan in January 2002, the U.S. has used its naval base in Cuba as its main holding area for suspected members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Some 750 detainees have passed through its gates at one time or another. Today it houses about 520, with the majority hailing from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Yemen. The most recent batch of new prisoners arrived last September.

What is their status? The U.S. considers none of the detainees prisoners of war, which means they do not enjoy rights under the Geneva Convention, which protects pows from indefinite imprisonment and aggressive interrogation. Because the detainees allegedly targeted civilians and did not belong to a conventional army—or, in the case of the Taliban, did not serve under a legitimate government, in the U.S.'s view—Washington classifies them as unlawful or enemy combatants, a decision that numerous critics vehemently disagree with.

Can they appeal? Because Guantanamo is on foreign soil—leased from Cuba since 1903—the U.S. has argued that the detainees are beyond the reach of U.S. law. Last June, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners have the right to challenge their captivity in federal court. Since then, some 150 detainees have filed petitions doing just that. The government has argued that the Combatant Status Review Tribunals—panels of three military officers that have been in place since last July—have given detainees all the due process to which they are entitled. Earlier this year a federal judge strongly disagreed, citing the fact that detainees were not allowed to have lawyers present at the review tribunals and were not privy to much of the evidence used against them. Another federal judge came down on the government's side. A case before a court of appeals in Washington is expected to decide the issue. Meanwhile, a recently declassified letter to military authorities obtained by TIME raises a new question about the tribunals. In the April 30 letter, lawyer Marc Falkoff, who represents Yemeni inmate Abdulmalik Abdulwahab Al-Rahabi, says statements made by an important witness against his client "appear to have been obtained by use of torture." Falkoff's letter says the witness is the same detainee whom FBI agents at Gitmo, in internal e-mails disclosed earlier this year, called #63 and who they said was intimidated with a dog and showed signs of "extreme psychological trauma" after being subjected to "intense isolation for over three months."

Who has been released? Over the past three years, 234 detainees have been permitted to leave Gitmo, but 67 were released on the condition that they be held by their home governments, including Pakistan, Britain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. At least 12 of those set free are believed to have resumed terrorist activities, according to the Defense Department. The vast majority of those released were deemed to be no longer a threat or of any intelligence value. Since the U.S. started the review tribunals last fall, about 40 detainees have been or will be freed because they were found not to be enemy combatants after all.

Have detainees been abused? In its recently issued annual report on human rights, Amnesty International said Guantanamo had become the "gulag of our times." While disputing many of the detainees' allegations of beatings, sexual taunts and other mistreatment, the U.S. is nonetheless investigating them. One of those inquiries, the findings of which are expected to be issued soon by Air Force Lieut. General Randall Schmidt, was spurred by eyewitness accounts from FBI agents at Gitmo from mid-2002 to mid-2004. According to just-released memos, agents reported seeing captives shackled in a fetal position for 24 hours without food or water and left in their own excrement, another gagged with duct tape that covered much of his head and another who had torn out his hair after being chained all night in a hot room. Former Army Sergeant Erik Saar, who served at Gitmo and wrote Inside the Wire with TIME correspondent Viveca Novak, has described an instance in which a female interrogator smeared fake menstrual blood on a captive's face. It may have been a measure of how detainees are treated that when Army Specialist Sean Baker played the role of an inmate in a 2003 training exercise, he says he was beaten so badly by MPs, who did not know he was one of them, he now has seizures. The Army is investigating the incident, and Baker has filed suit against the government, seeking damages for his injuries.

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