Guantánamo guard chief: Prison tap water is safe

Captives who won't eat and are considered at risk are given up-to twice daily feedings of Ensure or other nutritional shakes, often while strapped into a restraint chair shown in this Thursday, March 21, 2013 display at the prison camps' hospital at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, and cleared for release by the U.S. military.
Captives who won't eat and are considered at risk are given up-to twice daily feedings of Ensure or other nutritional shakes, often while strapped into a restraint chair shown in this Thursday, March 21, 2013 display at the prison camps' hospital at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, and cleared for release by the U.S. military.

The Army officer in charge of the Guantánamo Bay guards said in a sworn statement Thursday that there’s nothing wrong with the tap water at the prison, despite claims to the contrary by prisoners and U.S. forces who have worked there.

“It is the same water that I drink on a daily basis,” Army Col. John Bogdan said in an affidavit presented to a federal judge in Washington, D.C.

Bogdan added that the water is desalinated on the U.S. base in Cuba and checked at least once a month by Navy medical staff assigned to the prison to make sure it’s safe.

The government filed the statement in federal court in Washington in response to claims by prisoners that they have been denied safe water and that the air conditioning was being kept frigid to punish them during a hunger strike. The military disputes the claims and says prisoners are also offered bottled water.

Defense lawyers for a Yemeni detainee brought the issue to an emergency hearing, by telephone, before U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan. Mari Newman, a Denver-based attorney for the prisoner, Musaab al Madhwani, said Hogan took the matter so seriously he set a full evidentiary session for 10 a.m. on April 15.

“He was particularly concerned about our client’s health,” said Newman. “He was very aware of the hunger strikes that are going on.”

Hogan also put government lawyers on notice, said Newman, that “the hunger strike should not affect the detainees’ access to water and the other conditions within the prison.”

There was no way to independently confirm Newman’s account of the hearing. Hogan held Thursday’s hearing with government attorneys and defense counsel for Madhwani by telephone. His law clerk refused a reporter’s request to dial in and would not admit a McClatchy Newspapers reporter who arrived at the federal courthouse to listen in person.

The clerk told the reporter the judge was taking a “prearranged call in his private chambers,” and that because he was not holding the hearing in his courtroom, a reporter was not being provided access. A Justice Department spokesman said the lawyers had no comment on the substance of the closed session.

As of Thursday, the medical staff counted 33 of the 166 captives (19.8 percent) as hunger strikers, with 11 being fed nutritional supplements through tubes and three hospitalized, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, spokesman for the detention center.

At no time did guards deny any captive bottled water, he added, pointing to the affidavit by the colonel in charge of the prison camps’ soldiers guards.

“The water from the sinks originates from the base desalinization plant and is the same water that runs throughout the entire base at Guantánamo, and is available for consumption by all military personnel, civilians and their dependants at the base,” Bogdan wrote.

Durand also rejected captive claims that the guard force had fiddled with the air conditioning in the communal prison camp, Camp 6. If any of the communal captives feel cold, he added, they have 24-hour access to an outdoor recreation yard at the camp, where they can warm up. Temperatures in southeast Cuba this time of year reach the high 80s.

Defense lawyers presented the federal judge with affidavits that appeared to contradict the prison camp’s account, including one from a retired Army brigadier general, psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis that argued drinking tap water inside the detention center presented health hazards.

“Advising hunger-striking detainees at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility to drink water from the faucet predisposes them up to gastrointestinal infections and a quick demise,” wrote Xenakis, who has traveled to Guantánamo on several occasions to meet captives and consult with both civilian and military defense lawyers.

Also, former Navy corpsman Daniel Lakemacher, 26, who was assigned to Guantánamo in 2007 and 2008, submitted a sworn statement to the court saying,. “Based on my observations, it was commonly understood that drinking the faucet water would not be healthy.”

“During my service at the Guantánamo prison,” Lakemacher wrote, “I observed that all military and non-military staff working within the prison facility who drank water, drank exclusively bottled water and never tap water.”

McClatchy Newspapers reporter Emma Kantrowitz contributed to this report from Washington D.C.

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