Details emerge of guards’ skirmish with Guantánamo captives

Miami HeraldApril 16, 2013 

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Military commanders Tuesday offered a description of a communal prison camp where the captives ruled inside their cellblocks for months, covering cameras, poking guards with sticks through fences, spraying U.S. forces with urine and refusing to lock themselves inside their cells for nightly sweeps.

At Guantánamo’s communal camp, only if all the prisoners on a cellblock shut themselves in their cells, can guards step inside.

The commander, Capt. John, an Army reservist who refused to provide his last name, said that the once-compliant captives commonly ignored soldiers’ orders for months, since before he took charge in January, a situation that left the American captors of the foreign men with “no control over whether their behavior was good or bad.”

So early Saturday morning, dozens of specially trained U.S. soldiers in black riot gear, some toting shotguns armed with rubber bullets and canisters of rubber pellets, stormed Guantánamo’s former showcase communal compound called Camp 6 — and after brief resistance put about 65 defiant and no-longer-compliant captives in single-cell lockdown.

“I’ve never been in a civilian prison that looked anything like communal here,” said Capt. John, who said he had worked as a guard in Louisiana lockups that contained both convicts and pretrial detainees prior to his mobilization last year. But Guantanamo’s communal POW-style captives, men captured more than a decade ago and held without charges ever since, have “a lot of ideas here that they deserve an overabundance of things.”

U.S. forces offered descriptions of defiant prisoners to explain why, as of Tuesday morning, the vast majority of the 166 captives spread across seven facilities, were under lockdown. None were living in groups, POW-style. Visiting reporters could see them through surveillance cameras pacing restlessly inside single cement-block cells equipped with steel bunks welded to the walls, a toilet, sink and small writing table.

Gone was satellite TV and being able to roam inside their blocks for meals, prayers or go outside for group soccer. In place of access to books and hand-held games, movies, their legal documents and a pantry, each man had the barest of items — a blanket and sheet, thin mat to use for prayer and as a mattress, prayer beads, prayer cap and three books.

Several dozen captives inside Camp 6 had no Qurans, Capt. John said. Once locked inside cells Saturday, they refused to receive them through the slots in their doors. Some had also refused delivery of meals in Styrofoam containers, continuing their hunger strike.

The military described a five-hour operation that began before dawn Saturday in which troops charging the compound were met with brief resistance. The chief of the guard force, Army Col. John Bogdan, said he monitored the mission by video screen and radio but told reporters that no taped record existed of the skirmish.

Instead, to illustrate it, the prison camps spokesman, Navy Capt. Robert Durand, offered a display of homemade weapons, including a heavy metal bar broken off exercise equipment, four water bottles loaded with gravel from the recreation yard and lashed together, bolo style, as well as sharpened broom and mop handles.

The violence came in the context of a long-running hunger strike that the captives’ lawyers said was sparked by the prisoners’ perception that the guards had mistreated their Qurans in a Feb. 6 search — but all sides agree is fueled by frustration over the indefinite detention of captives whom the Obama administration decided could be released but for congressional restrictions and no country to safely take them.

Prison medical staff said 45 of the 166 captives were considered hunger strikers Tuesday but predicted the figure would rise because Navy medical staff had identified an undisclosed number of additional captives who might be candidates for tube feedings now that the captives were under lockdown.

No captive’s weight had dipped below 100 pounds, said a Navy officer in charge of prison camp health facilities who gave her pseudonym as Lt. Hermoine.

In the latest measure of the mounting tensions, the chief medical officer said that two men had attempted to commit suicide by strangulation over the weekend — one Saturday night while under lockdown at the former communal camp hours after the raid. Neither suffered brain damage. One man fashioned a laundry bag and shirt into a noose, and was found with marks on his neck. Another “managed to strangle himself” using something that was hanging in his cell, said Navy Capt. Richard Stoltz, the chief of medical services for everyone on the base from prisoners to guards to children of sailors.

Meantime, civilian lawyers complained Tuesday that they had been denied emergency trips or phone calls to check on their hunger-striking clients.

“The military is closing ranks and restricting access to clients,” said federal defender Carlos Warner, who represents several captives who’ve never been charged with a crime. “They don’t want the public to know what happened during its raid.”

Warner and other lawyers had wanted the military to negotiate with the hunger-striking prisoners, and to let them turn over their Qurans to the U.S. military. Durand, the spokesman, said the troops refused to take the Qurans because that could be construed as an admission of desecration.

The chief of the guard force, Bogdan, had earlier told reporters that the military had “not at all” lost control of the communal prison.

But once the captives used cereal boxes and other material to cover up 147 of the 160 cameras inside the cellblocks the military had simply “lost the ability to monitor them 100 percent.”

Bogdan, speaking to reporters for the first time since the prison camps’ hunger strike and non-compliance crisis, offered a confusing explanation of what went on in the raid — but said that some of his troops were armed with shotguns with “less-than-lethal” ammunition, cartridges loaded with rubber pellets as well as single rubber-tip bullets. He could not offer a clear explanation of how many of the “less than 70” captives met U.S. soldiers with weapons as they burst into different recreation yards.

He started off describing the figure as 8 to 12 but then described a series of events that added up to 48, or the majority of communal captives, resisting troops in riot gear pushing their way in with shields.

Four U.S. soldiers were counted as injured: Two guards suffered head wounds despite wearing helmets, and two others got splashed with the blood of a captive who, commanders said, whacked his head against a cell door on purpose, and required three sutures. No guards were hospitalized.

Five prisoners were wounded: One captive had to have rubber pellets removed from his flank; the captive with the head wound; another with a swollen elbow; and two with abrasions to a forearm and chest, respectively. None of them were hospitalized, either.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service