An Afghan captive at Guantánamo said in a just-released sworn statement that guards rifled through Qurans to trigger the ongoing 100-captive hunger strike at the prison camps in Cuba.
The four-page affidavit by an Afghan captive in his 30s, Obaidullah, is the first detainee court document to attest to what lawyers have said for months: Something went terribly wrong in a shakedown at the showcase, communal prison, called Camp 6, in February.
“While the soldiers conducted their searches, I and other detainees saw U.S. soldiers rifling through the pages of many Qurans and handling them roughly,” Obaidullah said in the March 27 statement that defense lawyers were allowed to release on Friday. “This constitutes desecration. It has not been searched in five years.”
Army Lt. Col. Samuel House said Sunday from the prison: “We don’t respond to allegations made by detainees.”
The military had consistently denied that there was anything unusual about the Camp 6 Quran search in February, and claimed that troops at Guantánamo treated the holy book with respect. On March 20, a week before Obaidullah’s affidavit, Marine Gen. John Kelly, head of the Southern Command, told reporters at the Pentagon that any allegations of abuse were “nonsense.”
“There’s absolutely no mishandling of the Quran,” Kelly said of the prison that Southcom supervises.
Only Muslim linguists are allowed to search the books, Navy Capt. Robert Durand has said, invoking longstanding Guantánamo prison procedures. In April, Durand said that troops videotaped the February Quran searches but declined a Miami Herald request to see it. The Herald renewed that request Sunday.
In March, Kelly told reporters that while “there’s nothing wrong with a non-believer touching the Quran” — he said a Sunni cleric had given him a copy during a deployment in Iraq — but that “in the normal course of operations” at Guantánamo “a believer, one of our translators” conducts the searches.
A March court filing by a Yemeni detainee that centered on whether tap water was safe in the prison made passing mention to “disrespect shown to the Quran by Guantánamo guards.” Army Capt. Jason Wright, a military attorney, said Obaidullah’s declaration was intended to be part of that Yemeni’s court case, which in the end was not heard after a judge ruled he had no authority to intervene at the prison in southeast Cuba.
The Justice Department subsequently declassified the declaration and Wright released it to the public on Friday.
Obaidullah has been held by the U.S. military since 2002.
He was assigned U.S. military defense lawyers years ago when the Pentagon was considering prosecuting him at the war court for allegedly having inactive landmines buried in a field opposite his home in Khost, Afghanistan. No charges have been sworn since President Barack Obama took office and worked with Congress to reform the military commissions and give Guantánamo captives greater protections.
Commanders at Guantánamo, who generally come and go on one-year rotations, deny the claim by the captives and their lawyers that the prison stopped searching the Qurans of cooperative detainees years ago.
The Pentagon’s senior civilian official with oversight of the prison, William Lietzau, wrote defense attorneys April 1 that Quran searches were justified because there were past “incidents of detainees storing contraband in their Qurans; items found have included improvised weapons, unauthorized food and medicine.”
The Pentagon has not been able to substantiate the claim by Lietzau, a retired Marine colonel who now serves as deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs.
On Sunday, House said the hunger strike count remained fixed at 100 prisoners for the ninth day in a row.
Two of the men were getting force feedings at the detention center hospital, although none had life-threatening conditions, said House, a prison spokesman. A total of 21 others were getting the up-to-twice-daily nasogastric feedings.