REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

Some detainees turn in their Korans

 

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Lawyers for the war-on-terror captives here have been reporting for months that some of the men have been turning in their Korans, gifts from the U.S. military, for fear of what may happen to them in their absence.

Under prison camp rules, detainees have been told to leave their Islamic holy books in their cells during recreation time and meetings with lawyers. And some have in turn told their attorneys that they don't know who goes into their cells or what they do there.

For the record, Guantánamo detention center commanders point to strict protocols for handling Korans, saying ordinary guards are forbidden to touch them -- and only Muslim linguists or chaplains on the military payroll can examine or handle them if a search for contraband is required. And prison camp rules say they're supposed to don white gloves to do it.

Still, the chief of the guard force, Army Col. Bruce Vargo, said in a recent interview here that 70 percent of the 320 or so captives currently keep Korans -- meaning 30 percent or nearly 100 of the men do not.

Absent the lawyers' explanation, the trend could have suggested a loss of faith at the isolated prison camps, where days revolve around three meals, five calls to prayer, daily visits to a recreation yard encircled by a chain-link fence -- and a weekly visit from the library carts. Prison camp commanders won't speak to individual motives or specific detainee cases under rules that forbid them from generally discussing individual detainees. But Vargo noted that during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, the number of captives with Korans rose to 72 percent.

***

CRITICS LOSE PODIUM: Gone are the days when military escorts turned over the press conference podium here to independent American lawyers, who would comment on -- and invariably criticize -- the evolving U.S. effort to stage the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War II.

In one memorable remark, seasoned Miami defense attorney Neal Sonnett said drolly after a particularly chaotic day that included a military judge's refusal to accredit a well-known New York litigator: ``This process is not yet ready for prime time.''

But last week, attorneys acting as observers since August 2004 were e-mailed new ground rules that stripped them of podium privileges for this visit -- as a condition for watching a hearing Thursday in which a third attempt will be made to arraign Canadian captive Omar Khadr, 21, under the latest formula for a Military Commission..

The trend toward muting the criticism was already evident during the last round -- when two judges threw out charges against Khadr and Osama bin Laden's driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a stunning setback, and a Pentagon spokeswoman announced to the press room that observers would be available to cameras for a few minutes ``in the parking lot.''

At the time, the monitors were from the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. This time, the Pentagon has expanded the monitoring pool and added three new observers -- a delegate from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a retired lieutenant colonel who is now a national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a retired colonel from a New York think-tank called the Carnegie Council.

None, however, will be able to speak to the Canadian TV cameras at a close-of-hearing briefing inside an auditorium alongside the press filing center. ''We're not making those government facilities available to them,'' said Army Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, a traveling press escort from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

***

DRUNKS RIDE FREE: Prison camp guards or other service members who overindulge at bars and parties here need no longer risk driving drunk on this 45-square-mile base with its own traffic court -- and a no-nonsense military police force staffed by Navy cops called masters at arms.

''The Wire,'' the detention center's weekly newsletter, featured an insert this week offering ''Safe Ride Service,'' and a drawing of a Yellow cab against a backdrop of skyscrapers unseen in this isolated slice of southeast Cuba.

''If you feel you are too intoxicated and cannot make it home, just let the nearest bartender know,'' it advises.

***

PASHTO SI, ENGLISH NO: A total of four detainees are studying Pashto and another four are studying Arabic but detention center commanders have not yet started English lessons for the best of the best -- or the detainees dubbed ''the most compliant'' in a communal portion of the prison here, called Camp Four.

In May, then commander Rear Adm. Harry Harris ordered a reversal in a five-year policy and said the military would allow particularly well behaved captives to learn English in the camp where about 50 captives currently are held.

Earlier camp commanders had spurned the idea on security grounds, saying English lessons might help captives eavesdrop on guard conversations in the prison camps where the current commander, Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, says the population includes ''all the elements that make up a full-blown al Qaeda cell'' -- leaders, organizers and foot soldiers.

Now the issue, escorts said on a recent tour, is not whether to teach English -- but how and what to teach, and who to hire to do it.

A civilian contractor currently teaches the Pashto and Arabic classes in a Camp 4 bunkhouse where detainees/pupils have their ankles shackled to the floor in padded cuffs at smooth stainless steel desks.

Nearby in the compound, there was little sign of life in a series of garden beds encircled by cinder blocks and dubbed the ''ICRC Gardens'' -- for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which donated the seeds.

Only a few sprouts were peeking through the mud in the specially constructed area where mostly Afghan captives once tended to a prospective vegetable garden.

A Navy guard offered the opinion that detainees lost interest in the project, which was created as a distraction, once it drew media interest.

***

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT: A Monday story said that some of the 320 captives at Guantánamo are still teenagers. The military says all the boys brought to the detention center have either been sent home or grown into adulthood behind the razor wire. Chief among them is Khadr, who was captured in Afghanistan at 15, moved to southeast Cuba after his 16th birthday -- and turned 21 two months ago. He faces arraignment Thursday on charges of murder, spying and providing material support to terrorism.

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