Pentagon Review Finds Guantanamo Conditions Meet Geneva Conventions, but Urges More Interaction for Some Detainees

A Pentagon review ordered by President Obama mostly approves of conditions at the Guantanamo Bay prison, says an official who has read it.
A Pentagon review ordered by President Obama mostly approves of conditions at the Guantanamo Bay prison, says an official who has read it. (By Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Pentagon review of conditions at the Guantanamo Bay military prison has concluded that the treatment of detainees meets the requirements of the Geneva Conventions but that prisoners in the highest-security camps should be allowed more religious and social interaction, according to a government official who has read the 85-page document.

The report, which President Obama ordered, was prepared by Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, the vice chief of naval operations, and has been delivered to the White House. Obama requested the review as part of an executive order on the planned closure of the prison at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, on the southeastern tip of Cuba.

Another aspect of the closure -- what to do with the approximately 245 detainees -- will be considered by an interagency task force, and yesterday the Justice Department announced the head of that group: Matthew G. Olsen, a 12-year career prosecutor and acting assistant attorney general for national security.

Review teams will examine each detainee's case and report to Olsen, who will make recommendations to senior officials from Justice and other agencies, including the departments of State and Defense and the CIA. Those officials will make the final decision on each prisoner.

"The Task Force will consider whether it is possible to transfer or release detained individuals consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States; evaluate whether the government should seek to prosecute detained individuals for crimes they may have committed; and, if none of those options are possible, the Task Force will recommend other lawful means for disposition of the detained individuals," the Justice Department said in a statement.

Defense attorneys for the detainees have complained bitterly about the isolation of some prisoners. They allege that over several years, it has led to mental problems for some detainees. The lawyers also have criticized the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike. About 40 prisoners are now on hunger strike, according to Pentagon officials.

Walsh concluded that force-feeding, which involves strapping detainees to special chairs and inserting a tube through one nostril and into their stomachs, is in compliance with the Geneva Conventions' mandate that the lives of prisoners be preserved, according to the government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the report publicly.

Walsh also found that prisoners should be allowed more communal recreation and prayer time. Prisoners in Camp 6 and the highly secret Camp 7 -- which holds such high-value detainees as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed organizer of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- can be held in windowless cells for up to 22 hours a day.

Walsh said the most isolated prisoners, including those in Camp 7, should be allowed to pray and have recess together in rotating groups of at least three for more extended periods of time.

Walsh's report was a broad endorsement of the Pentagon's management of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and it urged prison authorities to continue efforts across the system to maximize the ability of the detainees to socialize and practice their religion, according to the government official. "Continue to avoid actions that are disrespectful to the detainees," Walsh wrote.

Civil liberties groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is about to issue a report on conditions at the prison, challenged Walsh's findings.

"We do think conditions are in violation of U.S. obligations to treat prisoners humanely, and prisoners are at a physical and mental breaking point," said Pardiss Kebriaei, a staff lawyer at the center. "These are not the conclusions we had hoped for under Obama. It's very disappointing."

Attorneys representing detainees singled out force-feeding as particularly abusive.

Ahmed Zaid Salem Zuhair, a Saudi who has been on a hunger strike since the summer of 2005, has lost so much weight during his time at Guantanamo Bay that a federal judge has ordered an independent medical evaluation of him. Zuhair's attorney, Ramzi Kassem, said his client has been strapped to an uncomfortable chair for hours at a time during feedings and described the procedure as very painful.

"They deliberately use this brutal method that has no medical justification to put pressure on people like my client to give up the hunger strike," he said.

Kassem added that his client, who has been cleared for release, was recently moved to Camp 6, where he is on nearly round-the-clock lockdown in a frigid cell.

Walsh, however, found that the temperature in cells is comfortable and urged officials to continue to use climate controls correctly.

David Remes, another attorney who represents a hunger striker, called the force-feeding methods "torture." The medical staff often uses tubes that are too big, he said, and does not provide lubrication and anesthetic to ease the process.

Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, dismissed Remes's allegations as "false," saying that tubes are appropriately sized and that detainees are offered a variety of lubricants, including olive oil, and a gel anesthetic.

Guantanamo Bay has a series of facilities with differing levels of security. Prisoners deemed dangerous or not in compliance with prison rules are held in Camps 5 and 6, where recreation time is restricted and there is little or no opportunity for group activity. In Camp 4, by contrast, detainees can gather in dorms or a common area for much of the day, and there are classes, including English and art, as well as a makeshift soccer pitch.

Little is known about Camp 7, which is at a secret location at Guantanamo Bay and off limits even to military attorneys representing the men there. It houses those detainees who were formerly held at secret CIA prisons.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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