Lawyers: Conditions deteriorating at Guantánamo prison

More than a dozen lawyers for Guantánamo detainees on Monday filed a protest with the Navy prison in southeast Cuba over what they describe as a deterioration in conditions at the most populous prison building there, and mistreatment of Islam’s holy book, the Quran — a claim the prison flatly denied.

The protest, filed with the detention center commander, Rear Adm. John Smith, and his staff attorney, Navy Capt. Thomas Welsh, lays out a scenario of a “potentially life-threatening situation” following a sweeping three-week-old hunger strike inside Camp 6, a 200-cell penitentiary style building — “men coughing up blood, being hospitalized, losing consciousness, becoming weak and fatigued.”

Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the prison’s public affairs officer, disputed the claims Monday. As of Monday morning, he said, six of the 166 captives at the base had missed enough consecutive meals to be classified as hunger strikers. Five of them were being fed through tubes. Durand said. Under that procedure, military medical staff strap a captive into a feeding chair and pump a can of Ensure nutritional supplement into each man’s stomach through his nose twice a day.

As for the allegations of Quran abuse, the spokesman said the prison was following the same procedures for handling Islam’s holy book as it had for years — with Arabic translators treating them respectfully and observing a policy that “guards don’t touch the Qurans.”

Durand would not say whether there recently had been a guard force change in Camp 6 to account for the new claims of tensions between captives and captors. Lawyers have been describing a deteriorating situation for weeks, but Monday marked the first time they released a written protest publicly.

“There is and has always been continual turnover among the staff, and detainees will often cite any change, real or perceived, as a cause for protest,” he said. “It appears that the detainees have chosen one routine search in early February as the rallying point for their grievances.”

Detainee attorney David Remes said Monday evening that the conditions cited by his clients through letters, phone calls and meetings constituted “misery in the camps.”

Monday morning, he said, he met with a Yemeni client who “hadn’t eaten in 22 or 23 or 24 days” to protest the Quran searches, but had not deteriorated sufficiently to be force fed.

“He was weak. He was tired. He was cold,” Remes said of Hussein Almerfedi, 35, “and he had shrouded himself in a thick bath towel for warmth.”

On Feb. 14, a prison staff lawyer testified at the war court that new Army guards replacing Navy sailor had undertaken a search in a different prison building where ex-CIA captives are segregated. They had seized materials that “were disturbing to them,” including books, legal documents and a photograph of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

With regards to legal materials, the chief war court judge, Army Col. James Pohl, described a process of review that “appears to be ever changing and the review of it is ever changing. What’s OK in October is not OK in February.”

In their protest, the detainees’ lawyers alleged worse:

“We understand that Arabic interpreters employed by the prison have been searching the men’s Qurans in ways that constitute desecration according to their religious beliefs,” they wrote, “and that guards have been disrespectful during prayer times.”

Durand flatly rejected the claims, but said the Department of Justice would be responding to the lawyers’ letter.

Quran inspections by the translators are done “in view of the detainees” following rules written for the guards years ago. “It’s such a hot button issue,” he said of the Quran searches that the lawyers’ complaint “doesn’t pass the smell test. When they do cell searches, it’s the same procedure.”

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