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17 men and the Guantanamo dilemma

Chinese Muslims held since '01 highlight a problem: With the prison's closing planned, what to do with detainees?

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - At Camp Iguana, 17 Muslims from China taken captive in Afghanistan seven years ago now get Pepsi, Ping-Pong, and a 42-inch plasma screen for sports and religious videos.

They asked for a live sheep recently to celebrate Islam's holy Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, and were rebuffed - even before commanders realized they would need a super-sharp knife to slaughter it. They asked to watch soccer matches and got hours of World Cup and other highlights.

What they can't get is an answer to the question of when they might leave this place, as ordered by a judge in October, and which nation might grant them asylum.

"They're very compliant - with everything," said a Navy chief petty officer who oversees guards at the barbed-wired camp. "Very understanding. And patient, actually."

While Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has staffers in Washington writing plans to close the prison camps, the saga of these 17 men called Uighurs (pronounced


) shows what the architects of any new detention policy are up against.

Gates wants Congress to write legislation to block former terror suspects here from asylum on U.S. shores.

But that is precisely the remedy of lawyers who have for years helped these men sue for their freedom. Because they are from a Muslim minority in China, all sides agree that sending them back would doom them to religious persecution, perhaps torture, in their communist homeland.

Uighurville, as it is known, is the latest Guantanamo lab in the U.S. experiment in offshore military detention.

On a recent Saturday, an older Uighur was sitting cross-legged in a corner reading a Quran, while another man squatted nearby, washing his hands and feet for midday prayer.

Pentagon rules ban the media from talking to them.

So a reporter stood just outside a fence and watched as a Navy guard learned by walkie-talkie which DVDs the men borrowed from the detainee library - footage of the recent pilgrimage to Mecca,

A Decade of Great Goals & Great Matches

, and

Good Morning, Kuwait

, breakfast news from the oil-rich emirate.

For years, the men were kept like any other enemy combatants at Guantanamo - in austere, chilly, steel-and-concrete cells. Days revolved around one recreation period, three meals delivered to each man's solo cell, and the echoes of others' prayers through the walls.

Now they pray together, eat together, and kick a soccer ball around a dirt patch at Camp Iguana, a prime piece of prison real estate on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

Uighurville "is a significant improvement," said Seema Saifee, one of several attorneys who shuttle to meet the men. She noted they had "greater mobility and access to fresh air and sunlight."

It is a space roughly the size of a McDonald's drive-thru and parking lot, and the only place in the sprawling prison-camp complex where sleeping captives aren't locked up at night.

Plywood huts provide shelter for sleeping, eating and prayer - and one holds the flat-screen TV. Guards say the Uighurs put mops and brooms inside and divvy up the chores. There's no phone, and mail is slow, screened by the military. Guards set up a washing machine inside, and the men now launder their underwear and dry it in the sun.

Saifee held her attorney-client meetings this month through a chain-link fence that encircles their encampment. She found them "tired, sullen and despondent."

"They are being confined like caged animals," she said. "They want to be released."

But no one knows when that will happen.

In October, guards say, the men celebrated upon learning that U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered them brought to his court in Washington, a move that edged them closer to U.S. asylum.

The 1,000 or so Uighur American community near Washington teamed with the Lutheran Refugee Service to offer to sponsor the men. Religious groups in Tallahassee, Fla., also volunteered to resettle three of them.

Instead, an order came from Washington, which no longer considers them enemy combatants, to detain them as a population apart at Guantanamo.

Camp Iguana is not waiting to see what becomes of the latest chapter of Guantanamo at the crossroads. Prison-camp contractors are adding a soccer yard. And the Uighurs have a little garden. They planted orange seeds and have inch-high seedlings they are cultivating.

Said Navy Rear Adm. David Thomas, the prison camp's commander: "What that says about their thoughts on long-term detention, I leave it up to you."