The first prisoners, brought to the base shackled and hooded and clad in bright orange jumpsuits, were kept in outdoor cages and interrogated in wooden huts when they arrived on Jan. 11, 2002. With detainees later kept in steel mesh cells, the population grew to nearly 700 by mid-2003.
From the start, the camps seethed with tension. Prisoners, some subjected to harsh interrogations and sleep deprivation, staged mass hunger strikes, and banged on their cell doors for hours and hurled bodily fluids at guards.
In ensuing years, the military erected a modern prison complex virtually indistinguishable from a typical jail, keeping most men in communal blocks with amenities such as video games and cable TV.
U.S. officials have rejected most allegations of abusive conditions, and reports of clashes with guards and turmoil have dropped along with the decline in the prison population.
But the U.S. government also decided Guantanamo's reputation was more trouble than it was worth and began trying to empty it under Bush. His administration released 537 prisoners, transferring them to other countries or freeing them outright.
Under Obama, Congress balked at releasing prisoners, citing concerns that some already let go had rejoined the Taliban or al-Qaida. Congress imposed a requirement that the Defense Department certify a prisoner did not pose a threat if released, a guarantee that officials said was nearly impossible to grant. The law Obama signed Dec. 31 softened the language, but it's been a year since a single man has been transferred out.
"These are men who were in their early 20s when they were picked up and now they are in their early 30s and a significant amount of their lives has slipped away while this debate has gone on and on and on," said Cori Crider, a lawyer for the British human rights group Reprieve who represents several Guantanamo prisoners.
Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Congress was more interested in scoring political points, and should listen to security experts.
"We are not talking about releasing anyone who is dangerous. We're talking about releasing people who the intelligence and military communities have unanimously agreed should be released," Katznelson said.
Congress also has prohibited moving any Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. for detention or trial, which effectively blocked Obama's goal of closing the prison by January 2009 and trying the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and others accused of war crimes in a civilian court. Mohammed is expected to be arraigned at the base later this year.
Congress also stripped the prisoners of the right to challenge their detention in the courts by filing writs of habeas corpus. The Supreme Court returned that right, but the courts have said the U.S. can still detain men even if there is little evidence against them and no intention of charging them. When prisoners have won their cases in a lower court, the government has appealed and won.
With such a bleak legal landscape, Chandler and his co-counsel withdrew al-Nahdi's appeal rather than face certain defeat. It's made for difficult meetings when the lawyers must explain why so many others, including prisoners who were convicted of war crimes, have been released.
"He says: 'How come I can't go home? I've never been charged and I'm never going to be charged. And of course, I have no answer to those questions," Chandler said.