Last summer, troops kept their distance and walked softly in their combat boots while more than 100 captives spent their 11th Ramadan in military custody, observing Islam’s holy month together in group meals and long stretches of hip-to-hip prayer.
Last week, the same captives were locked inside single cells and the military walked the blocks where the captives had laid out meals. When Bravo Block conducted predawn fajr prayers, the guards opened slots on just two steel doors — for the prayer leader and caller — and left the other captives on the block to hear predawn worship as it echoed through the door and walls.
Lawyers for the detainees and U.S. military commanders offer two theories for what caused the detainees to go on a hunger strike and the military to react by ending almost all POW-style communal living:
• No hope: Prison officials point out that the troubles began around the time President Barack Obama took office for his second term, with no new ideas on how to achieve his first-term pledge of emptying the prisons at Guantánamo. Of the 166 detainees, at least 56 of the men know they were cleared for release by a federal task force, but Congress has blocked most transfers and the White House has put a particular hold on repatriations to Yemen, the home country of most Guantánamo prisoners and the place where an al-Qaida franchise has flourished. “They had great optimism that Guantánamo would be closed,” Marine Gen. John F. Kelly told Congress in March. “They were devastated apparently when the president backed off.”
U.S. Army military police now guard the communal camp in place of sailors, an organizational change that has contributed to tensions. The chief of the guard force, Army Col. John Bogdan, concedes that the latest rotation of MPs may be going “a little more by the book,” referring to Guantánamo’s “Standard Operating Procedures” on how to run this prison like no other. The procedures mean everybody should be treating the captives the same way, he said. But, “there’s doctrine and how you apply doctrine on the ground.” One source of tension is the new soldiers’ decision to have a Muslim linguist leaf through captives’ Qurans during a Feb. 6 shakedown. Bogdan, who got took charge of the prison in June 2012, said the prison had been systematically checking each captive’s holy book for years; the prisoners, who mostly arrived in 2002, said through their attorneys that the practice stopped years ago.
Lawyers quote detainees as claiming that some of the soldiers have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq with bitter memories and are taking their anger out on their Muslim captives.
The military has been unable to quantify what percentage of the 1,700 contract and uniformed prison staff served in the two conflicts. But it is true that most of the Navy guards had been pulled from shore duty in the U.S. or ship duty as a stop-gap measure. Few would have had experience in direct contact with enemy forces.