GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Guards earlier this year stopped cutting the beards off unruly war-on-terror detainees, according to the military, confirming for the first time a practice that enraged Muslim captives and their American advocates.
Prison commanders withdrew the policy of ''beard trimming'' in May, said Army Col. Bill Costello, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.
From 2005, he said, it had been an approved ``disciplinary action for severe physical assaults against the guard force, to include the throwing of feces, urine, semen, vomit, blood and/or saliva.''
But, he said, beard trimming ``was not designed as a religious punitive measure, nor was it ever carried out by interrogation personnel.''
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The issue cast a spotlight on religious tensions behind the razor wire at the Pentagon's showcase detention and interrogation center: Detainees and attorneys have long protested policies they said were designed to humiliate Muslim captives. The U.S. says its respects Islam while providing safe and humane detention to allegedly dangerous al-Qaeda members and sympathizers.
''Some of the beards are long -- you can hide a bazooka in there,'' Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy told reporters during an October visit by reporters in which he defended what he called an earlier policy of ``beard shortening.''
Countered New York attorney Martha Rayner, who represents a Yemeni client named Sanad al Kazimi, 37, whose beard was cut in October 2006, allegedly for throwing urine and feces at the guards: ``They do it to humiliate. As punishment. It is how they truly can humiliate a Muslim man -- shave his beard.''
Beard-cutting has long been controversial at the Guantánamo prison camps, which opened in January 2002 to detain and interrogate war-on-terror captives scooped up around the globe and airlifted to Cuba from Afghanistan. Captives arrived at Camp X-Ray clean-shaven and their hair shorn from their heads for health reasons, according to commanders.
Soon, tours for reporters and visiting business leaders pointed to captives' long, flowing beards as proof of respect for their religious identities. The tours also showcase a range of Muslim amenities -- halal food, prayer beads and rugs -- as well as Korans in a variety of languages.
Captives countered, through their lawyers, that they so feared their guards would defile their Korans that some returned them to commanders rather than leave them behind in their cells when they went to recreation or attorney meetings.
During a recent media tour, the military said that about 90 of the roughly 330 detainees had returned their Korans.
Meanwhile, the military denies that the guards ever shaved off a captive's beard entirely as part of its disciplinary measures for ''non-compliant detainees who assaulted the guard force'' and ``may have had their beards trimmed because it represented a threat to the operation of a safe and humane detention facility.''
Added Costello: ``Beards were trimmed to within inches, not clean-shaven.''
DETAINEES CAN SHAVE
But he said detainees can shave themselves entirely, if they want, during their shower periods.
Veteran Guantánamo attorney Clive Stafford Smith said one of his youngest clients -- Mohammed Gharani, 18, of Chad -- was punished by having his first beard completely shaved off in February.
High-value captive Majid Khan protested that Guantánamo guards shackled him and shaved off his beard for refusing to return his breakfast tray on Nov. 15, 2006.
Khan is a 1999 suburban Baltimore high school graduate who was seized in Pakistan and held for years in secret CIA detention. Although the U.S. alleges he plotted unrealized attacks on U.S. gas stations and water reservoirs, he has not been charged with a crime.
He told the panel he was so upset by his treatment at Guantánamo that he twice tried to commit suicide by gnawing through arteries in his arm.
''They just came in with eight guards and took me to main rec and forcibly shaved my beard to humiliate me and offend my religion,'' he told a panel of military officers April 15. ``While they were shaving my beard, the female Navy head psychiatrist was watching the whole thing.''
Navy Adm. James Stavridis, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, ended the policy in May in consultation with detention center commanders, Costello said.
He declined to say why, and whether the admiral received a specific protest.
Earlier this year, Washington attorney David Remes circulated a Holocaust-era photo of a Nazi cutting a Jew's beard, and likened it to the Guantánamo policy.
''I don't think that anyone who is doing this [at Guantánamo] understands the historical association,'' he said.
Captives claim the military magnified their humiliation by videotaping the beard-cutting. The military declined a Herald request for a copy, and would not allow a Herald reporter to view one.
Detainees' lawyers said the policy had waned for a while and then saw a resurgence after the command staff was rattled by clashes between detainees and guards in the most lenient camp on the base, which the military cast as a foiled uprising.