New coed guard duty causing ruckus at Guantánamo high-value prison

Guantánamo guards escort a detainee inside Camp 6, a prison building that permits some communal confinement, on Oct. 9, 2011 in this U.S. military handout photo.
Guantánamo guards escort a detainee inside Camp 6, a prison building that permits some communal confinement, on Oct. 9, 2011 in this U.S. military handout photo. U.S. NAVY

The military now has female soldiers escorting former CIA captives around Guantánamo’s high-value prison, an apparent personnel change that defense lawyers say is causing an uproar over religious insensitivity.

When one captive — who had just finished meeting with his attorney — refused to be touched by a female soldier, the military called in a special unit to move him using the detention center’s tackle-and-shackle technique, a Forced Cell Extraction. Since that incident, at least four of the 9/11 defendants have boycotted legal meetings over the issue, according to the attorneys.

The prison would not confirm the tension at Guantánamo’s most secretive detention facility, called Camp 7. But Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, a spokesman, said the U.S. military has a policy of being gender neutral in its relations with detainees.

The prison has “no intention in modifying its assignment of job responsibilities to members of the guard force based on gender,” Gresback said Wednesday.

Prisoners are generally moved from place to place in shackles, often at the wrists and ankles, with a guard on each side clasping the captive by the arm or shoulder. While the prison has made female guards available to speak with reporters, and has for years released photos of U.S. troops interacting with prisoners, none have described or shown female guards touching them.

Among those refusing meetings over the issue is Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“This is viewed as an attack on Islam because for years the guard force accommodated their religious objections to unwanted touching by someone of the opposite sex,” said Marine Maj. Derek Poteet, Mohammed’s military attorney. “It’s not about objection to women in the military or women’s roles. It’s just about unwanted touching.”

The coed escort issue apparently came to a head Oct. 8 after captive Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, in his 50s, held a “peaceful legal meeting” with his U.S. military defense team, said his lawyer Marine Lt. Col. Thomas Jasper.

Afterward, Hadi “was forcibly extracted from his cell” at the meeting place, for his return to his prison building. At issue, Jasper said, was “the use of a female guard to escort Hadi between locations,” an apparent change of prison camp policy.

Defense attorney Cheryl Bormann, who represents accused 9/11 plotter Walid bin Attash, said the recent addition of female guards as escorts appears to breach détente at the detention center.

Sometime after the CIA brought the Sept. 11 defendants to Guantánamo in September 2006, Bormann says she was told, some female soldiers were briefly assigned to Camp 7 escort duty. The captives protested and the prison replaced them with men, she said.

“Now all of a sudden there are women who are touching these men who find it religiously offensive.”

Bormann, who consistently wears a black abaya in her client’s company, said she has “never, ever” touched him — and he has likewise never touched her. “It isn’t that it offends his personal integrity,” she said. “It is because his religion teaches him that it is forbidden.”

Female U.S. troops are still excluded from detainee groin searches and showers, the detention center’s cultural advisor said Thursday. “These are male-female issues; it has nothing to do with culture or religion,” he said.

He’s a Pentagon employee, a Muslim man who goes by Zak, and he has no access to Camp 7, where the former CIA prisoners are kept. But he said, Guantánamo’s detainees cannot dictate whether male or female guards can “hold the shoulder and move them along.”

They can, however, refuse to go to appointments over the issue, and have done so, he said.

Detention center staff emphasize that troops respect their captives’ religion, Islam.

The detention center has an arrow indicating the direction of Mecca painted inside each cell. The guard force says it observes quiet time during the five-times-daily calls to prayer. Medical staff have for years adjusted the tube-feeding hours for hunger strikers to after dark during the holy month of Ramadan.

The cultural adviser Zak, who got to Guantánamo before the Sept. 11 defendants, said captives have in the past raised religious objections in order to “create some issue to draw attention to Guantánamo.”

“When you are in detention you have no option, no choice of who handles you,” he said by telephone from the Navy base in Cuba. “You have to live with the circumstances that you’re in.”

Detention Center responds:

Editor’s note: Joint Task Force Guantánamo and JTF GTMO are military jargon for the detention center staff at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba.

“Women are a critical part of the United States all volunteer military force serving around the globe. Joint Task Force Guantánamo is no different in offering equal opportunity for all service members serving here. Regardless of the camp in which they are assigned, women are a part of the guard force whose responsibilities include escorting detainees. JTF GTMO has no intention in modifying its assignment of job responsibilities to members of the guard force based on gender.

“We are not going to comment on specific movements of detainees who are at JTF GTMO. Standard operating policy and procedure applicable to all facets of detention operations at Guantánamo Bay are in compliance with U.S. law.

“Physical searches of detainees are conducted by the same gender of the detainee being searched. Female guard staff will not rove in the areas that afford view of the lower body of detainees while in the shower.” — Capt. Tom Gresback, Public Affairs Officer.