Guantánamo detainees also can’t eat with Red Cross

This 2014 International Committee of the Red Cross photo shows how delegates deliver mail at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a then-empty block of Camp 5 prison building.
This 2014 International Committee of the Red Cross photo shows how delegates deliver mail at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a then-empty block of Camp 5 prison building. ICRC/ANNA NELSON

Guantánamo prison management has expanded its rule forbidding dining with detainees to include Red Cross meetings and other legal visits, a continuing change in policy that began with a ban on defense lawyers breaking bread with their clients.

“The modifications address health, safety and security concerns applicable to all detainee meetings conducted in designated Camp Echo and Echo II meeting huts or Camp Delta, regardless of the purpose of the meeting,” Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Johnson, a spokesman for the remote prison operations in Cuba, said by email.

The detention center of 122 war-on-terror captives staffed by more than 2,000 troops and civilian contractors did an abrupt about-face last month on a decade-long policy of permitting food during legal visits, citing non-specific health and safety concerns. Lawyers described the shared meals as crucial to preserving the attorney-client relationship.

Similarly, released detainees have described for years getting a snack, a cookie or candy, during meetings with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is currently on its 108th visit since the prison opened in 2002, meeting with detainees and military commanders.

An International Red Cross spokeswoman would not comment on the new prohibition against offering captives treats at meetings but she said the aid agency was continuing to deliver certain foods from home to prisoners, along with letters from family, called messages.

The “family food parcels” contain “items that are culturally familiar to the detainees, such as nuts and spices,” ICRC spokeswoman Anna Nelson said from Washington, D.C. “The parcels are inspected and approved for distribution by the detaining authorities,” she added.

She called the long practice of delivering the parcels “part of our efforts to ensure that the detainees are able to maintain links with their relatives.”

Peter Honigsberg, who has interviewed former detainees around the world for his Witness to Guantanamo project, said this week that his archive includes an Aug. 4, 2009 interview in Tirana, Albania, with former captive Ayub Muhammed who recalled the Red Cross meetings as an opportunity to learn about fellow Uighurs in captivity.

“However, several Uighurs just went for the cookies,” Honigsberg said, quoting from a translation of a Muhammed interview conducted in the Uighur language.

At the Pentagon, where senior leaders meet Red Cross emissaries about confinement complaints, a spokesman said the no-eating policy was specific to the management of the prison camps at Guantánamo, run by the more than 2,000-strong Joint Task Force, JTF.

“It seems that the JTF’s policy would apply to ICRC meetings with detainees in the specified locations,” said Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III. “The cookies and food and all that is really a JTF policy.”

Red Cross representatives also arrange telephone and, in some instances, Skype-style teleconferencing between Guantánamo detainees and their families. A proposal, however, to conduct family visits for at least the cleared-for-release captives, who currently number 57, has failed to gain traction.

Last year, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which supervises the prison, said commander Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, supported the idea as long as the Red Cross found a compatible third country in the Caribbean to host the relatives between day-trips to the 45-square-mile outpost in southeast Cuba. “It would be just a day’s visit,” then spokesman Army Col. Greg Julian said.

This week, Southcom distanced itself from that support, and would not say what had changed since then.

“Southcom has not been tasked to support Red Cross-sponsored family visits for detainees,” said Army Col. Lisa Garcia. “If tasked to support the visits, Southcom will comply. Currently, family members may contact detainees via phone and Skype.”

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ICRC Figures

In 2014 at Guantánamo, the aid agency delivered 893 Red Cross messages, essentially letters; arranged 587 video or telephone chats between captives and their families and dropped off 65 “food parcels sent by their relatives via the ICRC.” The ICRC also took from Guantánamo 1,811 messages home written by detainees, and first cleared by the U.S. military .

Source: ICRC Annual Report, Americas section

Other Guantánamo-Red Cross coverage

Photo Gallery: Portraits through the lens of the International Red Cross

▪ Jan. 25, 2015: Former CIA captives get stop-and-go video chats home from Guantánamo

▪ Feb. 18, 2014: Some Guantánamo captives' family may visit, but no overnight stays

▪ Nov. 6, 2013: Guantánamo judge orders Pentagon to let him read Red Cross-U.S. correspondence

▪ March 26, 2013: Red Cross in Guantánamo a week early to check on hunger strikers

▪ Jan. 10, 2010: Images provide intimate look at Guantánamo captives

▪ Jan. 18, 2002: Red Cross Inspecting Guantánamo; Prisoners to get first visits

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