Ramadan gives glimpse of peace at restive Guantánamo prison

Islam’s holy month, which ends next week, has been a gloomy but less contentious one at Guantánamo for detainees after months of lockdown and hunger striking.

08/03/2013 12:00 AM

11/10/2014 2:49 PM

On a weekday during Ramadan, soldiers usher reporters to a window looking in on Echo Block where about 15 men are at afternoon prayer. The prisoners stand hip to hip in two rows, kneel then rise in the only glimpse of the captives the reporters will get in a weeklong visit.

As the military tells it, an angry hunger strike is cooling, and Islam’s holy month is a new beginning. But this guarded glance at the 12th Ramadan for most Guantánamo detainees shows no fellowship, no festive meal in the blocks.

And it is the complete opposite of a generous, confident Ramadan visit of a year ago. Then, the prison gave the Miami Herald night and day access to prayer and meals at different times in different cellblocks, to look and listen from unseen vantage points while commanders unhurriedly stood inside prison corridors chatting with confidence that they were doing the right thing.

Last year, the Herald got to record a prisoner under lockdown berating his guards before settling down to call his fellow captives to prayer through his steel cell door.

This year, it is the job of the Pentagon salaried cultural advisor called Zak to tell their story, from behind a desk at the command headquarters.

In the places where the reporters can’t look or listen, says Zak, himself a Muslim, the detainees are “praying, reading the Quran, meditating, being on their own.”

Lockdown has ended for dozens who are allowed to live communally now, if not as liberally as before. “They watch TV,” he says, and a recent report on Al-Jazeera about plans to hold parole-style reviews for indefinite detainees went over well.

“Ramadan is just a time when detainees spend worshipping,” he adds. “It gives the guards a break from putting up with the detainees.”

It is the first Ramadan at Guantánamo for most U.S. soldiers here and, coming after months of lockdown and hunger striking, the prisoners’ most austere in years.

Midnight meals come in Styrofoam boxes slid through a slot in each captive’s cell door. Even those the military says are eating and behaving are locked alone inside a cell for six hours, then let out in time for dawn prayers.

Conversations with lawyers, in person or by phone, take place in a different building. So guards are under orders to search each man’s genitals, twice, an invasive procedure the prison implemented after Ramadan last year.

As a result, most captives are refusing to speak with their lawyers, leaving attorneys like Cortney Busch to conclude from scant meetings and phone calls that her clients’ spirits are broken.

“Throughout the holiday we have learned that communal time, a tenet of Ramadan, is used as a reward for those who give up hunger striking — and a punishment for those who refuse to do so,” she wrote from the base after several clients wouldn’t come out of their cells to see her. “Certainly there is nothing to celebrate this Ramadan, and the mood of the camp reflects this.”

That’s a change, too. Last year, commanders said that because hunger striking was a legitimate protest, a handful of prisoners who had refused to eat for years were entitled to the perks of communal life — as long as they compliantly took nourishment through tubes snaked up their noses. The procedure was done at night to let them observe Islam’s Ramadan fast, too.

This year, the hunger strikers are under lockdown. It’s easier for a Navy medic to knock on a cell door to ask, after dark, whether the captive will be drinking his bottle of Ensure by hand. Or whether he’ll get it up the nose after two soldiers take him in shackles to a restraint chair.

If any of the dozens of hunger strikers are allowed to worship communally, the military will not say.

“We want to make sure they protest safely. The best way to do that is in a single cell,” said Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, a prison camps spokesman who was mobilized to the prison in January.

‘Ramadan pardon’

The holy month began after dark July 8. The prison announced a “Ramadan pardon.” On that day, the military counted 106 of the 166 captives as hunger strikers. The prisoners’ lawyers argued there were more.

Troops offered the captives clean, white uniforms, and let some prisoners out of lockdown to communal pods inside a 200-cell cement block prison called Camp 6. The Army commanders forgave past sins, according to Zak, in a “reset” that wiped the slate clean of accrued disciplinary days for doing bad things, such as covering surveillance cameras, refusing to leave a cell for tube feeding or hoarding “contraband” food.

Another way a detainee gets discipline time is by “weaponizing” his excrement. Social scientists say it happens especially in solitary confinement when a captive collects it in a cup and flings it through a food slot at a guard.

A 40-year-old Army guard, “Sgt. M,” calls it “a crime of opportunity” that he’s experienced four times.

Prison public affairs officers in particular, and commanders taking Congress members on tours, cite the tactic as one of the greatest indignities of service at Guantánamo and an example of gross misbehavior. Guards used to say they got “cocktailed,” for other bodily fluids that a bored or angry captive has added to the brew. These days they call it “splashing.”

By Ramadan in the communal cellblocks, according to one watch commander, the detainees had stopped their “splashing” and the commanders had reinstated art classes.

Guards were “building rapport with the detainees,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Vernon Branson, the watch commander, whose Military Police company got to Guantánamo about a month before Ramadan and found the prisoners “pretty upset being in single cells.”

By his account, there’s been a “night and day” transformation.

“We don’t want to upset them. We know this is their holiest month.”

‘Splashing’ in protest

Branson’s Texas-based 591st MP Co. was supposed to be going to Afghanistan. But the Defense Department diverted it to Cuba after troops stormed Camp 6 in April during the restive hunger strike. A career Army cop, he’s done two tours in Iraq, one in Saudi Arabia. He calls Guantánamo’s guard schedule — five 12-hour days in a row — stressful, career-enhancing duty that some troops relieve with scuba diving during two-day weekends.

“Everyone talks about being splashed,” he said. “All I know is, it’s better than being shot at."

Some troops say splashing even stopped for the first few days of Ramadan at Camp 5, the 100-cell maximum-security prison whose Army captain in charge won’t say how many captives are under 22-hour lockdown. House, the camp spokesman, estimates the prison burned about 50 U.S. Army uniforms that got contaminated from being splashed during the hunger strike.

“We do have a few detainees who like to splash,” House said.

At Camp 5’s particularly high-risk, hostile cellblocks, guards don face masks and jumpsuits atop their battle dress. Even so, Sgt. M said the slime slid inside four different times. He got a medical checkup, decontamination drill and new uniform.

“It’s tough. You cannot be angry in that moment. It’s not a pleasant thing to have to endure but you have to take that next breath,” said M., who added that “not all” the detainees treat him poorly. He came to Guantánamo from guarding criminal soldiers at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, and said the work here takes the same skill: “Maintain your composure, maintain your professionalism.”

Most members of the guard force serve for nine months to a year, and call their captives by their internment numbers, not their names. They are forbidden to read the military assessments of the detainees that court-martialed Army Pvt. Bradley Manning gave to WikiLeaks, and are posted on the Miami Herald website.

Still, Sgt. M. said he does have empathy for the men he guards.

“I understand these people are human beings,” he said. “They’ve been away from their families. I’m sure they miss their families and their homes.”

Last year, a Camp 5 commander said nearly exactly the same thing. Since then, the detainees through their lawyers have complained of cruel treatment, of disrespectful Quran searches, humiliating genital pat downs and horribly painful forced-feedings — all of which the U.S. military denies.

What happened?

In September a mentally ill captive was allowed to kill himself with a drug overdose in a disciplinary cell, according to a Southcom investigation that in November blamed both guards and medical staff for not keeping close enough watch on him. A new more rigid regime followed.

Looking back, says Navy Capt. Robert Durand who has logged the most time there as prison spokesman, a culture of communal captivity bred what he called unchecked “mass indiscipline” by the detainees at the once showcase Camp 6 prison building — where last year about 100 captives were considered cooperative enough to roam freely last Ramadan.

In January, soldiers replaced sailors at Camp 6, and one watchtower guard felt threatened enough to fire rubber bullets into the prison’s $744,000 giant recreation yard, which has been off-limits to prisoners for months.

Before the hunger strike began in February, new guards tossed the cooperative captives cells. They scooped up books, food, clothing, legal documents, an MP-3 player. Lawyers for the captives say it was stuff the men had been permitted for years and the new guards broke a sort of status quo. Detainees frustrated by years of indefinite detention, 86 of the 166 cleared for release, were furious. They declared a hunger strike, covered up their cell cameras to stop the soldiers from seeing who might be starving to death.

Before dawn on April under direction of Southcom, teams of soldiers in riot gear stormed the defiant prison building housing half of Guantanamo’s captives, uncovered the cameras and put them all under lockdown. What had largely been a cease-fire in splashings was over.

Prison hunger-strike participation soared, as did the numbers of detainees whose health was at risk, according to Navy medical staff, who brought in extra nurses and medics to conduct twice daily forced-feedings. At its height, the military said up to 46 captives who wouldn’t relent and drink a bottle if Ensure nutritional supplement could get it delivered twice daily through a tube in the nose.

60 hunger strikers

By this weekend, the prison said the number of hunger strikers had dropped to 60 from that all-time high of 106. But nobody on either side was declaring victory.

“The strike will continue until the military relearns how to communicate with the men,” said Ohio public defender Carlos Warner, attorney for about a dozen captives who won’t take a phone call from him because of the groin-search requirement. “Meeting them with force and punishing them like children will only deepen their resolve. It’s five months into the strike, and the military still refuses to have a meaningful dialogue with the men.”

At the prison, medical and guard staff insisted that the overwhelming majority of prisoners took part in Ramadan’s nightly festive iftar meal. Some were simply not eating enough to get healthy, according to Navy corpsmen who help evaluate the captives’ body weight.

Zak, the cultural advisor who got there in 2005 and was around when the camps introduced the “Ramadan pardon,” is unwilling to say whether the strike has been broken.

“We don’t know,” he said. “Are they taking a break because it’s Ramadan? That’s their choice.”

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