Guantánamo

Lawyer for alleged Sept. 11 plotter seeks art exception through war court litigation

‘Vertigo at Guantánamo,’ a 2016 watercolor by former CIA captive Ammar al Baluchi, was on display Oct. 25, 2017, in an exhibit called Ode to the Sea at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
‘Vertigo at Guantánamo,’ a 2016 watercolor by former CIA captive Ammar al Baluchi, was on display Oct. 25, 2017, in an exhibit called Ode to the Sea at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. crosenberg@miamiherald.com

A man accused of helping to plan the Sept. 11 attacks is asking a military judge to order the prison to permit the public release of art he makes in his cell at the Guantánamo Bay detention center, a war court lawyer said Wednesday.

Attorney Alka Pradhan, representing Ammar al Baluchi, said her legal team filed a pleading with Baluchi’s military commission accusing the Department of Defense of violating the captive’s rights by making it more difficult for him to draw and paint and by blocking him from giving his artwork to his attorneys. The war court has not released the pleading.

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Attorney Alka Pradhan Courtesy photo

In November, the Pentagon put new restrictions on the release of materials created by Baluchi, a nephew of suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, after a New York City exhibition of detainee art featured a watercolor done by him, “Vertigo at Guantánamo.” Pradhan said it depicts the aftermath of his torture in CIA custody.

Pradhan said the restrictions should be lifted because Baluchi, who’s awaiting a capital trial by a military tribunal, gets a therapeutic benefit from being able to create and share his work. She also said the art could help him appear more human to the military officers who may decide whether he is put to death. “The fact of the matter is,” she said, “you cannot discount every possible method of humanizing these men to the public when they have been so dehumanized by the government for so long.”

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A Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, said items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay “remain the property of the U.S. government.” She said she couldn’t comment on any ongoing litigation.

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Retired firefighter Jim Riches poses for a picture with a photography of his son near his home in New York, May 3, 2012. SETH WENIG ASSOCIATED PRESS

The idea that Baluchi should be able to create and display art spurred disgust and anger among some family members of those killed on Sept. 11.

“My son doesn’t have a right to breathe. They shouldn’t have a right to draw,” said Jim Riches, a retired deputy fire chief whose firefighter son was killed at the World Trade Center. “My son went to work, and he died that day. These are the guys that plotted to kill them. I think they forfeited their rights to draw any pictures or whatever they want to do.”

Baluchi is accused by U.S. military prosecutors of helping send several of the Sept. 11 airplane hijackers to the U.S., including financing their trips. The defense says there’s no proof he made those transactions or knew the hijackers intended to attack the United States. He was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and interrogated by the CIA before his transfer to Guantánamo Bay.

No trial date has been set, although defense attorneys have being conducting pretrial litigation since 2012. The next hearing begins April 30.

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