By Andy Worthington, May 30, 2015
In the latest news from Guantánamo, the prison's military commander, Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, has issued a memorandum banning lawyers for the prisoners from bringing food to meetings with their clients. The memorandum, entitled, "Modification to Rules Regarding Detainee Legal and Periodic Review Board Meetings," states, "Food of any kind, other than that provided by guard force personnel for Detainee consumption, is prohibited within meeting spaces."
That innocuous sounding ban is, nevertheless, a huge blow to many lawyers and prisoners. Since lawyers were first allowed to visit prisoners ten years ago, and to represent them, after the Supreme Court granted them habeas corpus rights in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, it has been an opportunity for bonding between lawyers and prisoners, and an opportunity for the prisoners to receive something from the outside world, in a place where, initially, they were completely cut off from the outside world, and where, even now, over six years after Barack Obama became president, they are still more isolated than any other prisoners held by the U.S. -- unable, for example, to meet with any family members, even if their relatives could afford to fly there, and, in almost all cases, held without charge or trial in defiance of international norms.
As veteran Guantánamo reporter Carol Rosenberg explained in an article for the Miami Herald, "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."
Writing of those first meetings, Rosenberg noted that the two sides "were strangers." She added, "Meetings required an act of faith on both sides." When the two sides became acquainted, 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."
According to the commander's memorandum, the ban on food at meetings addresses "health, safety and security concerns applicable to all Detainee meetings conducted in designated Camp Echo and Echo ll meeting huts or Camp Delta Gold and Silver buildings, regardless of the purpose of the meeting."
Carol Rosenberg noted that Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, a spokesman for Guantánamo, called the new rule a "procedural modification," that was "in the best interest of health, sanitation, safety and force protection."
He said that there was "no specific episode that ended the policy," beyond "ongoing patterns of possible improper sanitation and health practices," and what Rosenberg called "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,” Gresback added.
Responding, Shane Kadidal, a senior managing attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said, "It’s true that normal prisons don’t let lawyers bring in food," but, he added, Guantánamo is "the exact opposite of a normal prison."
Kadidal also said that eating during meetings had "just become an accepted part of the routine" at Guantánamo, where, in contrast to "normal" prisons, "U.S. troops comb through the defense lawyers’ legal documents."
He described the tradition of lawyers bringing food to the prisoners as "[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."
Alka Pradhan, of the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, called the new rule "petty and nasty."
"It's actually quite tragic for the clients," she said, adding, "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." Carol Rosenberg explained that, after military inspection, she had brought "everything from Egg McMuffins and traditional Middle East sweets to fresh fruit and granola bars."
Pradhan also said that the ban deprives prisoners of "a little slice of the outside world for a couple of hours" without, as Carol Rosenberg put it, "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." in Pradhan's words.
Other types of food brought by lawyers include "black seed, a home remedy for digestive issues" which Reprieve's lawyers have taken to meetings with Younis Chekkouri (aka Younus Chekhouri), a Moroccan who has been approved for release since 2009, and whose case we have written about before.
Another Reprieve client, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, who was resettled in Uruguay in December, after spending the year challenging the government's force-feeding protocols for hunger strikers, said, as the Miami Herald put it, that his lawyers "brought fruit juice to meetings that he would sometimes sip for strength at the height of his hunger strike."
The Miami Herald also reported that, several years ago, a lawyer and translator for made traditional Uighur noodles at the prison's guest quarters for Ahmad Tourson, one of Guantánamo’s 22 Uighur prisoners (Muslims from China's Xinjiang Province, seized by mistake), who, in October 2009, was resettled on the Pacific island of Palau. Shane Kadidal remembered that the three used Bic pens as chopsticks.
Another lawyer, a former military lawyer, estimated that he had spent $5,000 of his own money bringing meals from food outlets on the naval base -- including McDonald’s and Pizza Hut -- to meetings with Omar Khadr, the child prisoner who was returned to Canada in 2012 and freed from a Canadian prison on bail just three weeks ago.
The lawyer, who has defended several Guantánamo prisoners -- and U.S. soldiers accused of crimes in Germany -- but who did not want to be identified, said he brought meals to his clients at meetings in both places, while in uniform.
Another former military lawyer at Guantánamo, Navy Reserve Commander Suzanne Lachelier, explained how she "would ferry Lebanese and Afghan food from Washington," adding "fresh baked chocolate chip cookies from a base cafeteria," while working with Ibrahim al-Qosi, a Sudanese cook charged in the military commissions, who was freed in 2012.
"The main point was to allow the ‘sharing of bread,’ whatever that bread was," Lachelier said. recalling 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."
The new rule is just the latest change in a series of changes made by Rear Adm. Cozad, whose one-year tour of duty ends in July. As Carol Rosenberg noted, he earlier "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."
He also "implemented a policy of using female guards as escorts" at Camp 7, where the so-called "high-value detainees" are held, which some of the more devout prisoners complained about, for breaking "a long-running practice of having male soldiers handle prisoners who raised religious objections to being touched by women."
Rosenberg also explained that lawyers for the "high-value detainees" were disappointed but not surprised. They said that a stove and a microwave, used by guards and defense lawyers, "recently vanished from the compound where former CIA captives meet with their lawyers."
I hope this ban doesn't stand, as, for the nine years I have been writing about Guantánamo and the men held there, I have been aware of how significant the "sharing of bread" at the prison has been. And shutting it down now, for spurious "operational reasons," cannot be perceived as anything other than a cruel and unnecessary punishment for men who have already endured 13 years of unjustifiable isolation.
To call for the ban to be dropped, please call U.S. Southern Command on 305-437-1244 (I originally recommended 305-437-1213, but Witness Against Torture have assured me, from experience, that the former number is better) and ask for Rear Adm. Cozad to continue to allow prisoners -- "detainees," as the authorities describe them -- to have food brought to them by their attorneys.