Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba: The commander of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay believes there is little chance of the controversial facility being closed in the next two years, leaving Barack Obama struggling to achieve his goal of shuttering the jail before he leaves office.

Camp commander colonel David Heath told reporters he thought it was “unrealistic" to expect the prison to close during his two-year posting which ends in mid-2016.

The closure of the prison, set up to hold detainees from President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 “War on Terror," was a prominent part of Obama’s election campaign in 2008.

Yet attempts to realize his ambition have been thwarted by domestic and international obstacles, leaving the fate of the jail and its prisoners in limbo.

On Wednesday, Heath oversaw the first prisoner release since taking over as camp commander on 24 June, with Kuwaiti national Fawzi al-Odah repatriated after 13 years behind bars.

“After practising it several times, it was good to see we were able to do it," said Heath, who notified al-Odah in person of his release, the first in five months.

A further 79 detainees who have never been charged or tried for any crime have also been approved for release by a special committee.

Around a dozen more prisoners could be released in the coming few months, a US department of defence official told AFP.

Heath maintained that of the 148 prisoners held in Guantanamo, some for close to 13 years without charge or trial, he considers “many" are classified as enemies of the US.

Some former Guantanamo detainees have re-emerged in the ranks of jihadists since their release, and the possibility of more prisoners being freed is likely to run into opposition from Obama’s Republican opponents who now control both chambers in Congress.

Heath insists he does not have a strong view on the future of Guantanamo.

“I really don’t have an opinion on whether the facility should close or not," he said. “President Obama wants to close it and when that day comes we’ll execute that order."

‘Unrealistic’ 2016 closure

But Heath admitted he was sceptical that the camp could close before his posting ends in June 2016, just seven months before Obama’s successor is sworn in.

“I think that’s an unrealistic hope," Heath said. “I’ll run it the best I can until either I’m told to close it or I leave in 2016."

Nearly 13 years after the arrival of the first wave of detainees at Guantanamo, the facility is unique in that it mixes together prisoners different categories in its Camp 5 and Camp 7 wings.

“We’re unique here in that we have those who are cleared for release, conditional detention based on security condition and then we have continued law of war detention," Heath explained.

“In a perfect world, I would have more facilities for each category of detention."

Only around a dozen detainees deemed “high value" are held separately in Camp 7, including the five accused of plotting the September 11, 2001 attacks and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. They face military trials and possible execution.

With the future of Guantanamo uncertain, guards at the facility meanwhile concentrate on the task maintaining order at the jail.

Heath said personnel faced a daily threat of “splashing" by prisoners—the throwing of urine, faeces or bodily fluid on guards.

“In my experience, in the last four months it happens probably once a day," Heath said. “They don’t discriminate in splashing. If you are at the right place at the wrong time, they’ll splash whoever they can splash."

Heath, the former head of the Fort Lewis military prison in Washington state, said he attempted to convince detainees to stop the practice without success.

“I’d like for all of them to be highly compliant to live in a communal setting, it’s easier for all of us, but I’ve not been successful," Heath said.

There are some inmates, he said, who “have never behaved since I’ve been here."

Some prisoners have accumulated hundreds of days of disciplinary sanctions for bad behaviour. Although those punishments were often wiped clear at Ramadan to give detainees the opportunity to start afresh, plenty do not, Heath said.

“Some take advantage of it," he said, but “many are not going to take what I give them and they will keep fighting." AFP

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