July 28, 2014

Guantánamo filmed guards searching Qurans for contraband, but you can’t see it

A Miami Herald request to obtain and view recordings of guards searching Guantánamo captives’ holy books last year was denied by the U.S. military.

The U.S. military filmed troops searching captives’ Qurans inside Guantánamo’s prison building for cooperative captives — an episode blamed for sparking the prison’s long-running hunger strike, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.

The prison’s chief of staff, Navy Capt. John A. Schommer, confirmed that a single video record exists at the detention center, according to a July 15 response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Miami Herald last year while more than 100 prisoners were on the hunger strike, 36 of them being force-fed.

At the time, attorneys for some of the detainees claimed that new U.S. Army guards sparked the hunger strike by desecrating Islam’s holy book in a shakedown of the captives’ belongings — a claim the prison repeatedly denied.

The Pentagon’s senior detention official also defended the search as justified because “there have, in the past, been incidents of detainees storing contraband in their Qurans” including “improvised weapons, unauthorized food and medicine” — a claim the detainees’ lawyers denied. The Herald asked to see any video recordings of the searches to evaluate claims.

In its refusal, issued on July 15, the U.S. Southern Command’s FOIA manager, Marco I. Villalobos, invoked federal law that considered the recording itself classified as well as the identities of any prisoners and prison staff shown on it. Also, he said, the video “depicts processes and search procedures that could harm national security if released.”

The refusal is consistent with Southcom policy since December to disclose very little about the hunger strike at the prison. The military imposed a blackout on detainee hunger strike numbers Dec. 3 after nine months of daily disclosure.

Villalobos said he considered the matter closed but gave the Herald until Sept. 13, 2014 to appeal the decision to the Pentagon.

Southcom closed the Herald’s request, dated May 30, 2013, as 16 media groups argue in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., for public disclosure of other prison video recordings.

Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg tweets @carolrosenberg

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