Detainee art? What detainee art? Popular stop vanishes from prison media visit

Detainee artwork, once a proud fixture of media visits, has vanished from prison materials that reporters are allowed to see in the aftermath of a new policy forbidding the release of artwork by war on terror detainees.

Prison leadership says the art program continues and the captives are still making art.

But a usual stop at a trailer where, for years, troops and contractors hung detainee drawings and paintings was excluded from a five-hour Detention Center Zone visit by U.S., Australian and Colombian reporters on Feb. 3. It was the first media visit since summer, and the first since the Pentagon declared the art U.S. government property and halted a long-standing prison policy of letting captives give their artwork to their lawyers and families.

“Detainees are still going to art class,” the prison’s cultural adviser, known as Zaki, said, acknowledging that artists among the captives “were not happy about the change.” He blamed the new ban on defense lawyers who decided to display it in an exhibit in New York City.

Zaki’s boss, prison commander Rear Adm. Edward Cashman, later read a lengthy statement in response to a reporter’s question on whether the prison had been or would be burning art as a method of disposal — something a lawyer quoted a captive as being told by a guard.

“I do not have the mission, the requirement, the direction or the capability to store every detainee art project forever,” the admiral said. “I don’t have a project to build a detainee art museum. I do not have a project to hire a detainee art curator.”

Pressed on the incineration issue, he replied that detainees voluntarily turn in “completed projects” or those “they’ve lost interest in” and the method of destruction was not incineration but having it “shredded, thrown away if necessary.”

RELATED: “After years of letting captives own their artwork, Pentagon calls it U.S. property. And may burn it.”

stamped ship
Guantánamo prison put its stamp of approval for release on the sail of this model ship built by a current captive, Yemeni Moath al Alwi. He made it from discarded paper and other objects, and gave it to his lawyer as a gift. Here it was on display on Oct. 25, 2017, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in midtown Manhattan. CAROL ROSENBERG

The Department of Defense ordered the prison commander to stop letting detainees send art away in November in response to a display of art by current and since-released Guantánamo detainees at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in midtown Manhattan. One concern was that the exhibit’s website offered an email address for people “interested in purchasing art from these artists.” Proceeds were to go to needy family members, according to two lawyers.

The show also included a watercolor by a man awaiting a death-penalty trial on charges he conspired in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed 2,976 people, most of them at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. It was not for sale. His lawyers say the piece, “Vertigo at Guantánamo,” portrays a condition Ammar al Baluchi suffers as a result of his torture in CIA custody.

The prison’s cultural adviser, who had championed the art classes years ago, said the idea was to “let out their steam on paper instead of taking it out on the guard force.”

For years, he noted, “nobody in the government had an issue with it. The artwork was going to their families, it was given as gifts to their lawyers.”

One current captive at the prison has used discarded paper and other objects to craft model ships and gave a gondola to his lawyer as a gift. Models were on display at the New York City gallery.

In one instance, a captive who for a time was considered for war crimes trial drew a portrait of the chief prosecutor for military commissions, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins. He presented the art to the general before his release from Guantánamo.

Any detainee artwork given to prosecutors — “something that has happened on a few infrequent occasions,” according to war court spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Sarah Higgins — was “turned over to law enforcement channels for safekeeping.”

Higgins was unable to say whether the turnover happened before or after the Pentagon declared detainee artwork U.S. government property.

“Everything was going fine until the lawyers decided to parade their artwork in New York City,” Zaki said. “Put yourself in the shoes of somebody who lost their family member on 9/11. How would you feel?”

The art wasn’t actually paraded. It was on display in a hallway outside the offices of the college president, legal counsel and chief diversity officer. It had received some international and domestic media attention before the ban but nothing in comparison to the coverage it got after the Department of Defense halted future releases.

Zaki suggested that, if the college had made use of the art in a class rather than an exhibit, there might have been no problem. “OK, take it to that classroom, there is no need to parade it in the streets and to have people take pictures of it and show it. That’s where the screw-up was.”

The Manhattan exhibit closed on Jan. 26. That may not be the last time, however, that the public will get to see it. John Jay College curator Erin Thompson said by email Thursday that it may travel. She said she was “in negotiations with a number of venues interested in displaying the art.”

For his part, Cashman, who was introduced to the prison in April as “one of our Navy’s rising stars,” declared it “disappointing that obviously the politicization of what’s fundamentally a humanitarian program has developed the way it is and obviously it’s continuing with the desire to find sensational words to keep it in the news.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the title of the chief war court prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins.

Guantánamo prison had this painting by Pakistani ‘forever prisoner’ Mohammed Ahmed Rabbani in the wall on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, as part of its display of art projects done by captives. The photo was approved for release by the U.S. military at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba. CAROL ROSENBERG

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

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