More than 800 people have been held in the Guantanamo facility [GALLO/GETTY]

The US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, on a 78-square-kilometre scrap of arid soil, is the oldest US military base outside the US.

Camp Delta, inside the area, is the infamous detention centre that has housed detainees since the previous facility, Camp X-Ray, closed.

Here the inmates, or "unlawful enemy combatants" as they are designated by US authorities, most of whom were captured during the US-led war in Afghanistan in 2001, are held.

On January 11, 2002, the first detainees were flown into the facility. More than 800 in total have been housed in the camp. 

So far about 400 detainees have been released and, as of March 2008, the camp now houses approximately 280 detainees.

At least five detainees were teenagers, one aged only 13, reports said.

The facility has been condemned by the United Nations, the European Union, and numerous human rights groups, and many in the US argue that the camp has become a liability.

Even George Bush, the US president, acknowledged in 2006 he would "like to close" it.

Spartan facilities

Rights groups have held scores of protests
against the detentions at Guantanamo[AFP]
When Al Jazeera visited the facility in 2007, it found that in maximum security Camp 5, detainees are held in solitary confinement, under 24-hour guard.

Each small concrete cell contains a metal sink and toilet, a thin mattress, personal hygiene items and religious objects including a Quran.

There are interrogation rooms in each corridor with shackles set into the floor.

One military officer told Al Jazeera: "Each one is a little different, some have the la-z-boy like this one, some have a love seat or couch, but it's the same basic design with TV, refrigerator, coffee maker."

In another part of the base, detainees in medium-security camp Delta get more privileges - if they obey the rules.

'Abuse' claims

The camp's existence has long been condemned by human rights groups as counter-productive in the so-called "war on terror" and damaging to the US's global image.

In June 2006, three detainees committed suicide by hanging themselves with nooses made from bed sheets. Human rights groups say dozens more have attempted to kill themselves.

The US military called their deaths a form of attack, but rights groups said the deaths showed the despair of inmates, some of whom have been held for seven years without trial.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have also alleged that inmates have been tortured.

Several released inmates have also made claims they were subjected to harsh interrogations including British citizen Moazzam Begg, held for almost three years in Guantanamo, who said he had been shackled, kicked and punched during interrogation.

In addition, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admitted in February this year that it had used the controversial "waterboarding" technique - which simulates drowning - on three Guantanamo suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged planner of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Trials controversy

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has been held at
Guantanamo since 2006 [AP]
In October 2006, Bush signed into law a bill outlining standards for military tribunals of detainees, after the US supreme court ruled that tribunals set up to prosecute those held in the facility violated US and global law.

However, since then, only one trial has been successfully held and concluded - that of Australian citizen David Hicks, who pled guilty in March 2007 to aiding Afghanistan's Taliban government and was sent back to Australia to serve his sentence.

He has since been released from Australian custody.

In recent months, the US has announced plans to charge six detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, with various offences including terrorism, adding they would seek the death penalty.

However, rights groups have been swift to point out that much of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's confession would be problematic, as the CIA has to using the "waterboarding" technique on him.

But despite the controversy, criticism and worldwide condemnation, US officials insist that Guantanamo is a vital tool in the global "war on terrorism".

"We understand that they are dangerous men, and we understand that they are willing to kill
Americans here in Guantanamo," Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the Guantanamo Joint Task Force Commander, told Al Jazeera in 2007.

"I am convinced that they are in fact terrorists. I am convinced that they are in fact dangerous men. I am convinced that they are all in that category."

Source: Al Jazeera