Military bans Big Macs, other treats at Guantánamo legal meetings

In this image reviewed by the U.S. military, Guantánamo detainees look out from fenced-in areas as a guard closes a door in Camp Echo detention facility on the U.S. Navy Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008. Lawyers have brought meals and treats to detainees at Camp Echo since 2005, a U.S. military accommodation ending this week.
In this image reviewed by the U.S. military, Guantánamo detainees look out from fenced-in areas as a guard closes a door in Camp Echo detention facility on the U.S. Navy Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008. Lawyers have brought meals and treats to detainees at Camp Echo since 2005, a U.S. military accommodation ending this week. ASSOCIATED PRESS

A Sudanese captive and his lawyers baked a Guantánamo guilty plea over chocolate chip cookies. Attorneys for a sickly Syrian hunger striker got him to sip juice as they worked on federal court strategy. Child soldier Omar Khadr passed through his adolescence behind the razor wire in Cuba chowing down on pizza and McDonald’s with his lawyers.

Now, a new rule going into effect Wednesday at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba forbids food at legal conferences for the first time in a decade.

The prison says the ban is for health and safety reasons, but the move has been criticized by lawyers who argue that breaking bread has been crucial to the coexistence of American attorneys and their captive Guantánamo clients through years in legal limbo.

“It's actually quite tragic for the clients. Sometimes the food we bring is the only thing from the outside world they’ve seen in months, and they really look forward to it,” said attorney Alka Pradhan, who has brought to meetings, after military inspection, everything from Egg McMuffins and traditional Middle East sweets to fresh fruit and granola bars.

▪ Defense attorneys also have routinely brought black seed, a home remedy for digestive issues, to meetings with Younis Chekkouri, a Moroccan who’s been approved for release for at least five years.

▪ Lawyers for long-term hunger striker Abu Wa’el Dhiab, now in Uruguay, said they brought fruit juice to meetings that he would sometimes sip for strength at the height of his hunger strike.

▪ Years ago, an attorney and translator made traditional Uighur noodles at Guantánamo’s guest quarters for Ahmad Tourson, a detainee who in 2009 was sent to Palau in the west Pacific. The trio used “Bic pens as chopsticks,” said Shane Kadidal, a senior managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York legal defense firm.

▪ One former military lawyer estimates that he spent $5,000 out of his pocket bringing meals from base restaurants — McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, the Irish Pub — to meetings with Khadr. The “child soldier,” who was captured at 15 and brought to Guantánamo at 16, pleaded guilty to hurling a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in a firefight in Afghanistan — in exchange for being returned to Canada at age 26.

That lawyer, who no longer represents Khadr and spoke on condition that he not be identified, has defended several accused terrorists at Guantánamo as well as American soldiers accused of crimes in Germany. He said he brought his clients’ meals to meetings in both places, in uniform.

But at the remote U.S. Navy base, the custom of eating with a captive across a meeting table at Camp Echo — with the prisoner shackled by an ankle to the floor — took on cultural and symbolic significance almost from the start when lawyers brought burgers and breakfast sandwiches from the base McDonald’s to prison meetings in 2005.

The U.S. Supreme Court had said captives could see lawyers after years of isolation. But they were strangers, Americans who volunteered to defend men cast as fanatical, suicidal al-Qaida terrorists in the raw era after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Meetings required an act of faith on both sides. Attorneys had to trust that the captive would not hurl a hot cup of coffee at them. Captives had to trust that the lawyers were providing meals consistent with Islam’s prohibition on pork.

Some attorneys moved on to traditional Middle East or Afghan food — falafel, hummus, baklava, kebabs — brought from restaurants in the Washington, D.C., region, or prepared in guest quarters before meetings. The two sides met across a taste of home, or something new, with the captive playing host, sharing the food if he chose.

By 2007, the prison provided some lawyers with a kitchen for reheating the meals and refrigerating them at Camp Echo.

Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, the prison spokesman, said this week’s “procedural modification” was “in the best interest of health, sanitation, safety and force protection.” He cited no specific episode that ended the policy beyond “ongoing patterns of possible improper sanitation and health practices,” and a desire to imitate procedures at federal prisons and the military’s disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

“A legal room is not designed to be a dining facility,” said Gresback, who is concluding a yearlong stint with the temporary 2,000-member prison staff.

It’s true that normal prisons don’t let lawyers bring in food, said Kadidal, the New York defense attorney. But, he said, Guantánamo is “the exact opposite of a normal prison.”

At Guantánamo, he said, U.S. troops comb through the defense lawyers’ legal documents, something he says doesn’t happen at a normal prison.

Eating during meetings had “just become an accepted part of the routine” at Guantánamo, Kadidal said.

“A bit of compensation for the hassles of being shackled and stuffed into a van to meet with your lawyers in a tin shed in Camp Echo when the litigation isn't really going anywhere.”

Pradhan, of the London-based legal defense firm Reprieve, called the new rule “petty and nasty.”

She said it suddenly deprives the prisoners of “a little slice of the outside world for a couple of hours” without wondering whether a guard had spit or mixed pork into the food as they shared a meal with a lawyer — “someone who’s not needlessly hostile to them.”

The new rule is the latest long running accommodation withdrawn by prison leadership under the command of Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, who is likewise ending his year tour there soon.

Earlier, Cozad recommended that a Navy nurse face trial for refusing to force-feed detainees, something medical professionals said was a reversal of a promise to not punish military healthcare providers for raising ethical objections. Cozad also implemented a policy of using female guards as escorts at the high-value-detainee prison, something some devout detainees said broke a long-running practice of having male soldiers handle prisoners who raised religious objections to being touched by women.

The new rule also comes as an undisclosed number of the 122 captives, 57 of them cleared for release, are on a long-running hunger strike that the prison prefers to call a non-religious fast.

Lawyers are disappointed — but they are not surprised. A stove and microwave used by both guards and defense attorneys recently vanished from the compound where former CIA captives meet with their lawyers.

In the years Navy Reserve Commander Suzanne Lachelier was working with a Sudanese captive at Guantánamo on his war crimes case, she would ferry Lebanese and Afghan food from Washington. She would add fresh baked chocolate chip cookies from a base cafeteria.

“The main point was to allow the ‘sharing of bread,’ whatever that bread was,” said Lachelier, who no longer represents Guantánamo detainees.

She recalled that bringing him food permitted him to play host, if briefly, by offering his lawyer a cookie, a small reprieve from an otherwise powerless state of indefinite detention without charge. She won’t quantify it, but she said that in some measure, it helped the working relationship.

The captive, Ibrahim al Qosi, would eventually trade a guilty plea in exchange for returning home in 2012 from more than a decade of U.S. military detention. He admitted to an association with Osama bin Laden, including running an al-Qaida kitchen in Afghanistan.

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The Miami Herald has obtained a copy of the admiral’s memo forbidding meals at legal meetings. Read it here.

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