For almost a decade, the 15 detainees considered to be the most dangerous at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been locked in a special top-security facility, deprived of some of the privileges granted to other prisoners, such as communal living, live television and periodic calls with their families.
Now, as the Pentagon moves to improve prisoner conditions, officials have allowed several “high-value” inmates to make Skype-like video calls and speak with their families for the first time since they were brought to Guantanamo Bay from secret CIA prisons overseas.
Officials have imposed strict security restrictions on the calls, monitoring both sides’ statements to ensure no classified information is divulged, making for a disruptive experience that in one case stretched a 30-minute conversation to four hours.
The tightly controlled concession reflects not only ongoing sensitivity about information the prisoners, some of them charged with plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, might divulge, but also unresolved disputes about the detainees’ most basic rights.
Anna Nelson, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the ICRC facilitated video conversations for two detainees on Jan. 17 and 18.
“We believe that in situations of prolonged detention, family contact enables detainees to maintain their sense of human dignity,” Nelson said.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss prison operations, confirmed the calls took place in “near real time” and were subject to security screening.
“We have concluded that increasing family contact for the High Value Detainees can be done in a manner that is consistent with both humanitarian and security interests,” Lt. Col. Myles Caggins III, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. He said Pentagon officials now planned to expand the calls to the 13 remaining high-value detainees.
Navy Cmdr. Patrick Flor, a military defense attorney for Abu Faraj al-Libi, one of the high-value detainees, said his client had spoken with his family in Tripoli, Libya, in the past week. He said the call was disrupted by audio problems, which may have resulted from the screening of Libi’s statements.
“Do I think this is a good thing?” Flor asked. “My guy has been locked up since 2005 at Guantanamo. He has had no direct contact with his family,” and has a daughter he has never even seen, he said.
Libi, who provided the United States with information that ultimately helped locate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, has not been charged with a crime.
Among the other prisoners at Camp 7, the maximum-security detention area that is so secret that its location is classified, are Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi of Yemeni descent who could receive the death penalty for his alleged role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.
Both men were subjected to waterboarding and “rectal feeding” during their CIA detention and were brought, along with a dozen other prisoners held by the spy agency, to Guantanamo Bay in 2006.
Navy Cmdr. Brian Mizer, Nashiri’s lead military attorney, said his client had also made a call to his family in Saudi Arabia.
“Allowing Abdul Rahim to speak with his family was, I am sure, uplifting for both him and his family,” said Richard Kammen, a civilian attorney for Nashiri. “Because he suffers chronic complex PTSD from the physical, sexual and psychological torture inflicted upon him by the United States, allowing him to make this call is a minor but appropriate part of his medical care.”
Mizer said he expected the call was “overwhelming” for Nashiri and family members. “Mr. Nashiri hasn’t seen his family in 12 years — no voice contact,” he said. “That circumstance happening in an American prison or a [prisoner of war] setting is simply unfathomable.”
Walter Ruiz, a defense attorney for Mustafa al-Hawsawi, a Saudi man also being tried for involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, said Hawsawi’s defense team also requested that its client be allowed to speak with his family.
“International humanitarian law requires the government to provide law of war detainees with those standards,” including family communication, Ruiz said. “To not do [so] is considered to be punishment and in this case would be illegal punishment prior to being found guilty.”
Defense attorneys had long appealed to military authorities to permit such calls. Prisoners in Guantanamo’s general population have been able to make land-line audio calls since April 2008, the ICRC said, and Skype calls began in September 2009.
Previously, high-value detainees were only allowed to write and receive letters transmitted by the ICRC. Last August, prison officials began allowing them to record video messages about family topics, which were then shared with relatives. All communication is screened by government officials.
Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, a military spokesman at Guantanamo, said differences in conditions for prisoners at Camp 7 and other detainees were “very minimal.”
“All detainees held at the detention facility at Guantanamo are treated in accordance of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions,” Gresback said, referring to international rules governing treatment of people during armed conflict.
Defense attorneys said that security restrictions have also hampered the recorded video communication.
Air Force Capt. Michael Schwartz, a military lawyer for Waleed bin Attash, also charged in the 9/11 attacks, said his client recorded a video for his family in November. A screening of the video was offered to his family in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but only five people — chosen by the United States — were permitted to watch it. Schwartz said the Attash family declined to watch the video because of those restrictions.
Mohammed, likewise, was offered a chance to participate in recording a message to his family, but he ultimately declined because of viewing restrictions, said David Nevin, his civilian lawyer.
Adam Goldman contributed to this report.