'The gall of this country': Gitmo attorneys buying basic items for long-held detainees - report

© Bob Strong
Attorneys for prisoners held at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay say they have had to purchase shoes, clothes, personal hygiene products and other basic items for detainees they represent. They accuse the prison of "pinching pennies."

The 114 detainees left at Joint Task Force Guantánamo in Cuba are walking around in ragged clothing and shoes held together with duct tape, several attorneys told the Miami Herald. The detention center, which has cost more than $5 billion since it opened in 2002 and boasts a staff of more than 2,000 people, increasingly leaves detainees without adequate clothing, attorneys said. Shampoo, toothpaste and other personal hygiene items are too cheap to be effective, they added.

“Stuff’s just not getting replaced,” said lawyer George Clarke, who recently purchased new shoes, sandals, T-shirts and towels for his two clients, at a cost of about $300. “They say the stuff they get is crap. Or they’re not getting it.”

A Gitmo spokesman insisted standards "have not changed," but refused to comment on whether the situation is based on budget cutbacks or new prison policy.

"Any reports of shortages are baseless," Navy Captain Christopher Scholl, public affairs officer at the prison, told the Herald. "The JTF [Joint Task Force Guantánamo] is committed to ensuring detainees are kept in a safe, secure and humane environment. The physical and mental well-being of detainees is our primary responsibility, and their security is of vital importance to our mission."

The International Committee of the Red Cross would not indicate whether it had raised any issues with the prison regarding basic prisoner provisions.

The Pentagon is currently considering a $3 million expansion of its war court compound at Camp Justice at Gitmo, according to a separate Miami Herald report on October 10.

A dozen attorneys told the Herald that their detainee clients are appearing at legal meetings looking disheveled and without attire in good condition. This is worth mentioning, they said, because the vast majority of detainees attempt to clean up before such meetings.

“They’re looking pretty threadbare,” said attorney Cori Crider, of the legal defense group Reprieve, who had just bought shampoo and socks for a client. “It’s an escalating complaint that people are being left in rags.”

Other items, like the serving of lamb during Ramadan, have disappeared altogether. Gitmo's cultural advisers said "logistics" were to blame.

One attorney said that she spent $136 on shoes, socks, and other items for her two Yemeni clients in March. These items, like all donations or products bought by attorneys, are vetted by prison staff before given to captives.

"I don’t mind buying my clients shoes to improve their conditions,” said Patricia Bronte. “It’s the gall of this country. To detain these guys for little or no reason for 14 years and not provide them with shoes is offensive.”

Attorney Ramzi Kassem, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law, which is representing five detainees, said his clients have quoted guards and other prison staff as saying budget cuts are to blame.

“Sometimes it’s a problem of poor toiletries — soap that doesn’t lather, toothpaste that doesn’t froth, deodorant that doesn’t prevent body odor," he said, adding the prison's infamous orange jumpsuits are fading and tearing, and prison-issued footwear appears “Oliver Twist tattered."

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Prisoners know how much money runs through the detention center, Kassem said.

“Somebody’s pinching pennies, it seems,” he said.

Fifty-four of Gitmo's 114 remaining detainees have been cleared for release, yet they will remain at the prison until the US State Department negotiates resettlement or repatriation terms with another nation before being approved by the Pentagon.

However, the US Senate passed a defense bill last week that blocks the closure of Gitmo. The bill prohibits the use of funding to build facilities for Guantánamo inmates inside the US, their transfer to US soil or their release to countries of origin or third countries until a number of onerous conditions are met. One such requirement calls for the Department of Defense to submit a detailed plan for all individuals held at Guantanamo, and for Congress to approve it.

The Guantánamo prison was first opened in 2002 following the attacks of September 11, 2001, to house suspected jihadist militants with ties to Al-Qaeda. The prison once held 779 detainees. It eventually became an international symbol of human rights abuses. Many detainees were moved to Gitmo after being renditioned to CIA-run "black sites," where they were hold and some tortured for long periods of time.

In December, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 480-page executive summary of the roughly 6,000-page secret report on CIA practices, including torture techniques. The summary contained the committee’s conclusions concerning post-9/11 tactics deployed by the CIA under the administration of President George W. Bush in an attempt to gain intelligence from suspected terrorists. The panel’s probe found that the CIA undermined "societal and constitutional values that we are very proud of," according to then-committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-California).

In 2014, the Obama administration made progress in releasing low-level Guantánamo detainees, finding host nations for 28 prisoners ‒ the highest number of transfers from the prison in one year since 2009. That year, President Barack Obama first took office after vowing to close the facility, where many detainees who remain today have been kept for well over a decade without being charged or tried.

Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has been blocked from meeting with Gitmo detainees. He has called indefinite detention ‒ the hallmark quality of the Guantánamo prison ‒ “itself a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” His office has said forced feedings used by Guantanamo officials to break prisoner hunger strikes “in some cases can amount to torture.”

According to human rights groups, many of the detainees at Guantánamo were reportedly handed over to US forces by bounty hunters in Pakistan and Afghanistan, after the US distributed flyers in these countries offering substantial monetary awards for turning in "suspicious" people. Others were linked to relatives or acquaintances suspected of criminal activity, and were therefore considered "guilty" by association.