April 2, 2009

Camps commander defends celebrity visits

Guantánamo's prison camps commander said Thursday he would continue to allow celebrity visits despite a simmering controversy over a visit last month by Miss Universe and Miss USA.

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Guantánamo's prison camps commander said Thursday he would continue to allow celebrity visits despite a simmering controversy over a visit last month by Miss Universe and Miss USA.

"They were on tour to say 'hello and thank you' to the guard force,'' said Navy Rear Adm. David M. Thomas Jr., sweeping aside a claim that letting celebrities see war-on-terror detainees violated Geneva Convention protections.

The USO, the group that sent comedian Bob Hope to Vietnam, sponsored the visit March 21-24 by Crystle Stewart, Miss USA, and Miss Universe, Dayana Mendoza, a 22-year-old model from Venezuela, who posted a glowing description of this remote Caribbean outpost on her Web site.

''The water in Guantánamo Bay is soooo beautiful!'' gushed Mendoza, who was crowned Miss Universe 2008 in Vietnam.

She also made passing mention of meeting military dogs and her visit to the prison camps, ''the jails, where they shower, how they recreate themselves with movies, classes of art, books,'' she said. "It was very interesting.''

Guantánamo guards said the beauty queens were dressed conservatively and drew no particular attention from detainees when they stood at the same spot where journalists typically watch captives living in a communal-style compound called Camp 4.

A provision of the Third Geneva Conventions forbids the parade of POWs for ''public curiosity'' -- a rule that the Pentagon has interpreted to mean that news photographers can take only pictures that blur the identities of the captives.

Thomas noted that ''the press sees the same stuff'' in its visits to the camps as did Mendoza and Stewart. "We certainly are very scrupulous in our adherence to the Geneva Conventions.''

But Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, a defense lawyer whose client, a Sudanese captive, lives in Camp 4, said that U.S. reporters have a First Amendment right to visit the place.

''What exactly was she reporting on?'' said Lachelier, referring to Mendoza's blog posting. "The suntan she got in Guantánamo?''

In a statement posted on the Miss Universe Web site, Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, said Mendoza's blog comments "were in reference to the hospitality she received while meeting the members of the U.S. military and their families who are stationed in Guantánamo.''

Lachelier is also paid by the Pentagon to represent accused Sept. 11, 2001, co-conspirator Ramzi bin al Shibh, a Yemeni who is held in a secret prison camp for former CIA captives -- off-limits so far to media and models alike.

However, that camp was toured recently by a delegation from Congress who watched remotely while accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed was on his knees in Muslim prayer.

Lachelier had to get a Marine judge to order her access to the prison last year, so she could inspect her client's Camp 7 conditions. But she is banned from publicly describing the circumstances of bin al Shibh's detention.

The Navy lawyer said she and an Army lawyer had lodged protests Wednesday with several members of Congress that "they are dehumanizing our clients by making it look like a freak show.''

Thomas, the admiral in charge, said he approved the Venezuelan model's visit to the camps -- with Miss USA -- because detention center guard and medical forces work 12-hour shifts. USO-approved celebrity visits are "a very big morale boost to these hard-working men and women . . . in this isolated duty station.''

The fact that she spoke positively of her visit was not intended to counter international criticisms of the camp, he said, defending plans to keep the policy. "The transparency of what we do is fundamentally American. It's the right thing to do.''

Lachelier conceded she didn't like the model's message:

"She made Guantánamo sound like a vacation land. And it devalues what the clients go through, how they live.''

Guantánamo Bay has been a stop on the celebrity entertainment tour since the Bush administration created the controversial prison camps in southeast Cuba in January 2002 for al Qaeda and Taliban suspects.

Those who have toured prison camps included the actor who played a drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, R. Lee Ermey, country singer Charlie Daniels and the Portland, Ore., rock band Everclear.

It was not known if any of the professional sports cheerleading squads who sometimes visit also have seen the detainees, who as of Thursday numbered about 241.

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About Carol Rosenberg

Carol Rosenberg


Carol Rosenberg reports on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the place, policy, people, war court.

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