In a mysterious episode earlier this year, a guard became suspicious of three Qurans discovered in a recreation area inside Guantánamo’s most clandestine prison and declared them contraband, court records show.
A military spokesman said ultimately all three Qurans were returned to the prisoners to whom they were issued, but could not explain which of Guantánamo’s most prized captives were separated from their holy books in Camp 7 — the top secret lockup of the alleged Sept. 11 plotters and nine other former CIA captives.
Quran handling has been a source of tension across the years at the prison, which has special no-touch procedures for the guards. Non-Muslim troops are instructed to find a Muslim, generally a linguist or other contractor, to handle the holy book.
The seizure of the Qurans along with other written materials by a soldier who was identified as Guard 1487 occurred Feb. 5, according to an incident report attached to a court filing in the Sept. 11 case. The soldier, whose rank is specialist, wrote in the report that he was conducting a cell search and came upon the three Qurans “on a stack of books” in a recreation area in Camp 7. The prison segregates captives who were waterboarded, rectally rehydrated and subjected to other harsh interrogation techniques by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The larger issue in the court filing is ongoing litigation over guards seizing what defense lawyers describe as privileged material. Lawyers for one of the 9/11 defendants, Mustafa al Hawsawi, protested the removal of legal pads — including some with “significant defense strategy on them” — and said the prison was not following the judge’s order to the detention center to return seized legal material with a written explanation.
Bob Swann, a Sept. 11 case prosecutor, included the report about the Quran episode in a filing that described the seizure of legal material.
A guard searching a recreation cell said the holy books became contraband because they were labeled with prisoner identification numbers other than Hawsawi’s. A second document suggested they were found not in the recreation cell but in Hawsawi’s cell.
“An interpreter removed the Korans from the cell as contraband,” Guard 1487 wrote. Two other books were similarly seized in the recreation area as contraband because they bore a prisoner number belonging to 10017, Mustafa Abu Faraj al Libi, rather than Hawsawi, prisoner 10011, as well as three of Hawsawi’s legal pads found “buried in a stack of legal envelopes” in the Camp 7 recreation area.
Camp 7 is off limits to most troops and all journalists, and the military doesn’t explain its procedures at the secret prison. So the description of a guard finding these items in a common area and concluding they were contraband because they were assigned to prisoners other than Hawsawi is perplexing.
“The bottom line is there is a number in that Quran to whom that Quran belongs,” said Navy Capt. Tom Gresback by telephone Monday. “The Quran was picked up from the recreation yard and it was returned to the person it was assigned.”
He was unable to say how long the books were classified as contraband and whether they were searched before they were returned. The prison’s cultural adviser, who goes by the first name Zak, said from his reading of the report the guard was likely young and following contraband policies. The Quran he said, “it’s always respected. The guard force did the right thing by calling the linguist.”
It is not known what was going on at Guantánamo on the morning of Feb. 5, when the seizure occurred. The war court was in recess, but on Capitol Hill the Senate Armed Services Committee was getting a briefing from Obama administration officials on its plans to close the prison. It was during that hearing that Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, an Army veteran offered the opinion that Guantánamo prison was underutilized and that detainees there can “rot in hell” or “rot in Guantánamo Bay.”
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By the numbers
Guantánamo presently has 122 war on terror captives and more than 2,000 Pentagon employees, from troops to contractors, assigned to prison operations. More facts and figures here. About the different detention center facilities here.