This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
WASHINGTON – Delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross visiting Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic, were unable to meet some of the prisoners held there because of restrictions imposed by the US military have prevented the two sides from speaking to each other, lawyers say for the prisoners.
The Red Cross delegation, which seeks humane conditions for prisoners of war around the world, left the base on Tuesday after a three-week visit that began with two weeks of quarantine, which the military is demanding of all visitors during the Covid-19 crisis. .
The Red Cross canceled two visits earlier this year due to the pandemic, depriving prisoners of their only contact with an independent outside organization monitoring the conditions in which they are being held.
In visits with detainees that began last week, the organization’s first since March, prisoners and Red Cross delegates were separated six feet in a meeting room, separated by a plexiglass barrier . Prisoners and delegates both wore a hooded white biohazard coverall and N95 respirators.
Lawyers for several prisoners at the base’s classified compound, Camp 7, said one or two prisoners had met with a Red Cross delegate, but found that the sanitary protections imposed by the military made it impossible the conversation. Soon after, the other prisoners saw their appointments canceled.
Elizabeth Gorman Shaw, a spokesperson for the International Red Cross, who considers her conversations with prisoners and the military as confidential, declined to discuss issues that arose during the meetings, but said the delegation “carried out its Quarterly visit to Guantánamo Bay to the best of its ability under Covid constraints. “
The organization has visited the prison at least four times a year since it opened in January 2002, but has canceled two quarterly visits this year due to the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the prison at US Southern Command in Doral, Fla., Maj.Gregory J. McElwain, said the decision to combine personal protective equipment with “engineering controls, such as plexiglass barriers Was motivated by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The 1,500-soldier prison task force “has a responsibility to maintain the health and safety of inmates and guards,” he said.
Neither the army nor the Red Cross wanted to reveal how many of the 40 wartime detainees had scheduled appointments and how many were canceled.
Major McElwain said the military had made efforts to accommodate the Red Cross team.
In the spring, the military revealed that two people out of the 6,000-resident base had been infected with the virus, one of them assigned to prison staff, but then blackouted such disclosures. The base imposed a heightened alert for a week in October as it sent tests to the mainland that fear-informed lawyers said were negative.
Brig. Gen. John G. Baker, a Marine defense attorney who met an inmate under similar conditions last month, said the distance and barriers made his conversation difficult and muffled. It was held in a meeting room which usually has both an air conditioner and a dehumidifier. He was prohibited from giving or showing documents to the detainee.
General Baker said that once he donned the required prison attire, which included surgical slippers, only his eyes and forehead could be seen, and so was the prisoner.
Detainees have mostly been kept in a sort of bubble since the start of the pandemic, with only two lawyers reaching base and little contact with guards.
One detainee wrote to his lawyer in a letter this week that the Red Cross “had decided to cancel the remaining appointments in protest against the exaggerated measures”. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity and refused to name the detainee without first seeking his permission, which would take several days due to the delay in communications between lawyers and detainees via a secure messaging system.
James G. Connell III, a death penalty defense lawyer, said his client, Ammar al Baluchi, was among several former CIA prisoners who had canceled Red Cross appointments. He said the outcome of the meeting did not bode well for the Pentagon’s efforts to resume hearings early next year in the case of Mr. al Baluchi and four other men accused of conspiring. in the hijackings of September 11, 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people.
“It’s impossible to communicate through a plexiglass wall about complex issues,” he said. “If the ICRC cannot speak to prisoners through a plexiglass wall, how do they expect to have an audience through a wall?”
No proceedings have taken place in this case since February. Military contractors installed plexiglass inside the cavernous National Security courtroom, including a barrier between lawyers and prisoners, in anticipation of hearings restarting before the pandemic ends.
The prospect of the resumption of preliminary proceedings in the 9/11 case in the capital hit a new problem this week. Prosecutors on Tuesday filed a motion asking the Air Force judge assigned to the case to resign because he did not serve two full years as a military judge, which is required by commission rules military.
The prosecution objected to the selection of Lt. Col. Matthew N. McCall on the day he was assigned to the case, Oct. 16, and repeatedly asked him to leave the case in notices and the like judicial deposits. Tuesday’s case explicitly asked him to recuse himself or stop making decisions.
Col. McCall, the sixth judge to handle the death penalty case since the defendants were indicted in 2012, extended the procedural deadlines in the case in light of the virus. In fact, it postpones jury selection beyond the anniversary of the September 11 attacks next year.