Red Cross Inspecting Guantánamo; Prisoners to get first visits

 

crosenberg@MiamiHerald.com

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- The number of al Qaeda and Taliban inmates rose to 110 in a rugged open-air prison compound Thursday, hours before a Red Cross team arrived to inspect conditions for the men Washington calls "unlawful combatants" and the international aid organization labels prisoners of war.

The four-member team arrived late Thursday on a 19-passenger chartered plane from Fort Lauderdale and headed into briefings with U.S. military commanders. It was unclear whether they would have face-to-face meetings with the captives before today.

"We will look at treatment, at conditions, " said Urs Boegli, the Washington-based senior representative for the International Committee of the Red Cross, responsible for North America.

His team included a Moscow-based ICRC linguist, Christian Mehl; a doctor on special assignment, Raed Aburabi, and Paul Bonnard, deputy head of the ICRC Protection Division in Geneva.

In keeping with long-standing policy of the Swiss-based organization that monitors POW conditions worldwide, Boegli said the team would not make its report public. "We will share . . . our findings confidentially with the detaining authority, " he said.

Earlier in the day, 30 more prisoners arrived from Kandahar, Afghanistan, with the same stiff security arrangements that surrounded three earlier arrivals.

Taped goggles blinded them. Their hands and feet were shackled. And their mouths were covered with surgical masks to prevent the spread of disease as they emerged from the huge C-141 Starlifter cargo plane that ferried them from Afghanistan.

TOLD WHERE THEY ARE

Military officials confirmed for the first time that the prisoners have been notified that they are in Cuba. With the aid of translators, they are provided postcards on their arrival to notify family that they are detained at this Navy base, said Army Col. Terry Carrico, commander of the prison compound called Camp X-Ray.

All cooperated and filled out the forms, Carrico said.

Among the prisoners is the former Taliban army chief of staff, Mullah Fazel Mazloom, U.S. defense officials said Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

The Pentagon has refused to publicly identify any of the prisoners. Mazloom is the highest ranking Taliban official among the detainees, according to two defense officials who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.

The United States claims that as "unlawful combatants, " the detainees are not guaranteed rights under the 1949 Geneva Convention covering prisoners of war.

But mindful that the world is watching, U.S. military members reiterated throughout the day that Muslim sensitivities are being taken into consideration.

Guards wake the inmates in time for morning prayers before breakfast. Only one captive came with a copy of the Koran, said Carrico, but a shipment of the Islamic holy book is expected before February.

A Muslim cleric - alternately described as a Marine or Navy officer - is en route to this remote outpost on the edge of the Caribbean, added Army Lt. Col. Bill Costello.

Meanwhile, Brigadier Gen. Michael Lehnert, the prison commander, sought to clarify that the chain-link cells at Camp X-Ray are 8-by-8-feet rather than 6-by-8 feet - the size cited by U.S. military officers for the past week. A more permanent cell compound, which has walls, will contain 6-by-8 foot cells, officers said.

PHOTOS OF DETAINEES

Thursday morning, news photographers were for the first time permitted to take pictures of the detainees inside their cells, distinguishable by their fluorescent orange jumpsuits, but too far away to see their features. One was being led by two MPs from a cell, presumably for a shower, latrine visit or exercise. Another was lying on his side, a towel over his head and shoulders.

"We wake them up for prayer time. We feed them their breakfast and then they have their time, " reported Sgt. Lisa Juve, 25, of Bismarck, N.D., one of 14 female soldiers who are part of a Military Police detachment from Fort Hood, Texas, which is guarding the prisoners.

Juve said she was aware that in Afghanistan Taliban militiamen covered Afghan women so she suspected that "it bugs them a little bit because I'm telling them what to do. My sole purpose in that facility is to tell them when to eat, when to go to the bathroom."

She also issues a wake-up call to Muslim prayer, by rapping on the prisoners' cells and using hand signals for those who don't appear to understand English. All of the detainees under her supervision engage in morning prayer, she said.

Soldiers assigned to the prison project said they are well aware that the detainees are suspected in the events surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks.

But several said they were instructed to stay focused on their jobs.

"Everyone thinks about that, but you can't treat them any differently, " said Juve, a 41/2-year career soldier who earns $2,180 a month. Hialeah-born Marine Pvt. Christopher Vieitez, 22, a machine gunner who patrols outside the camp, described the inmates as "just misguided people."

Asked what the United States should do with the prisoners, Vieitez replied that they should be held "until they get the idea that they're messing with an awesome force - and reap the consequences of what they do."

The son of immigrants from Cuba, Vieitez said this assignment was his first visit to his parents' homeland but he had been too busy "doing my job" to form an impression.

Asked whether he was frightened by the assignment, the former Braddock Senior High School student said, "I've been trained not to be scared."

Read more Guantánamo Special Coverage stories from the Miami Herald

  • Web Extra | A prison camps primer

    The Pentagon has built a series of facilities at Guantánamo Bay since it inaugurated its offshore detention and interrogation center for terrorist suspects in January 2002 by airlifting captives to remote Cuba from Bagram, Afghanistan.

  •  
In this Feb. 2, 2002 file photo, a detainee brought by airlift from Afghanistan is carried on a stretcher before being interrogated by military officials at Camp X-Ray at the U.S. Navy Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

    GUANTANAMO

    ‘Flouting the rules of law and morality’

    GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Before this onetime coaling station for the U.S. Navy ships in the Caribbean was transformed into a site holding captives in the war on terror that U.S. officials had called the worst of the worst, most Americans were unaware of its existence.

  •  
These men are among those being force-fed at Guantanamo, according to their lawyers who say they got notice from the Justice Department. Top row from left: Yemeni Tariq Ba Awdah, 34, Syrian Jihad Diyab, 41, Yemeni Mohammed Al-Hamiri, in his 30s. Bottom row rom left: Kuwaiti Fayez Kandari, 35, Yemenis Yasin Ismael and Samir Muqbil, both in their 30s. Five of the photos come from the captives' military intelligence risk assessments obtained by McClatchy from Wikileaks. Kandari's photo was taken by the International Red Cross and released by his family.

    Who's still being held at Guantánamo

    Here is a comprehensive list of who is still held at the Guantánamo detention center in Cuba. McClatchy determined who was still there using both sources and court records as well as secret intelligence files obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy.

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