U.S. forces raided Guantánamo’s showcase prison camp early Saturday, at times battling with detainees, to systematically empty communal cellblocks in an effort to end a three-month-old protest that prisoners said was sparked by mistreatment of the Quran, the military said.
“Some detainees resisted with improvised weapons and, in response, four less-than-lethal rounds were fired,” according to a statement issued by the prison camps at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. “There were no serious injuries to guards or detainees.”
The pre-dawn operation took place hours after delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross left the remote island prison and during a blackout of news media access to the crisis in the prison camps.
The worst injury involved a rubber pellet piercing a captive’s “flank,” said Army Col. Gregory Julian at the U.S. Southern Command, which has oversight of the prison camps operation. The captives resisted the assault with broom and mop handles as well as plastic water bottles that had been wrapped and modified into clubs, he said.
The scenario described by the military — individual men locked one to a cell, maximum-security style, in a facility designed for communal medium-security confinement — returned the prison camps to an austere detention approach dating back to the Bush administration.
By the time President Barack Obama took office, the prison camps had established communal confinement in a prison called Camp 6 that was more in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, with POW-style amenities such as satellite TV, books and, for well-behaved captives, wristwatches. The Pentagon even built a $744,000 open-air barbed-wire and fence-ringed soccer field guarded by troops in air-conditioned towers to keep the two sides apart and avoid friction.
But lawyers for the detainees had in recent months described mounting tensions at the camps that hold 166 captives following a particularly aggressive Camp 6 cell search held Feb. 6, after U.S. Army soldiers took over as guards in the communal camps from U.S. sailors.
Lawyers for the captives said a wide-ranging hunger strike was underway, and some described seeing long-held, once plump prisoners wasting away before their eyes. The strike, they said, was sparked by what the captives considered abusive searches of their Qurans but was fueled by years of frustration at their status of legal limbo.
The military denied that the Quran was mistreated in what it called routine, respectful searches — and downplayed the magnitude of the food strike.
Prior to Saturday’s battle between captives and troops, the prison had counted 43 of the captives as hunger strikers, with 13 being force-fed nutritional supplements by tubes snaked up their noses and into their stomachs.
A visit to the camps in March made it clear that guards had lost a measure of control over life inside the communal blocks.
The captives could be seen systematically disobeying communal camp rules. They covered surveillance cameras in individual cells with cereal boxes. They refused to admit food carts to the cellblocks. Commanders said they were concerned that, out of view of the guard force, there were stealth hunger strikers who could suddenly die.
The raid let guards and medical staff examine each captive individually, but the number of hunger strikers according to prison camp spokesman Navy Capt. Robert Durand did not rise. Sunday afternoon, the military still considered 43 of the captives to be hunger strikers, 13 being tube fed.
At the height of Camp 6 cooperation, about 130 captives lived in pods — praying together, eating together and having around-the-clock access to an open-air recreation yard, while guards kept a distance.
Following Saturday’s raid, about 60 captives were confined single-cell, maximum security style and the guards were inside the blocks that the captives once controlled.
“In order to reestablish proper observation, the guards entered the Camp 6 communal living spaces to transition detainees into single cells, remove obstructions to cameras, windows and partitions, and to assess the medical condition of each detainee,” a statement from the prison said.
Nearly 90 of Guantánamo’s 166 captives had been cleared for release or transfer to their home countries years ago but are trapped at the base in POW-style status because of Congressional restrictions on releases.
Ohio Federal Public Defender Carlos Warner, who represents several detainees, said Saturday’s assault “is exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. As of last week the strike would end if they allowed the men to surrender the Quran. Instead, the military is escalating the conflict.”
Human Rights Watch counsel Andrea Prasow noted that many of the hunger strikers have been identified by their lawyers as pre-cleared captives.
So, while she said it is understandable that the military sought to re-establish authority over a portion of the prison camps, the new maximum-security lockup regime means that the captives “are essentially being punished for acting out their despair.”
An International Red Cross spokesman, Simon Schorno, said the organization “was not involved in any way in this operation and therefore will not comment on its objectives, the way it was conducted or the detainees’ response to it.”
The White House had no comment on the raid itself but said in a statement that it had “been monitoring the situation at Guantánamo closely” and was told in advance of the “plan to transition detainees at Camp 6 from communal to single-cell living to ensure their health and security.” It said the Defense Department, Southcom or the prison camps staff in Cuba could answer “any more detailed questions about what took place.”