New Guantanamo policy: Genital “pat down”

Guantanamo official confirms new policy requiring prisoners to a search a previous policy shunned.

Guantanamo tense time
This April 16, 2013 video frame grab reviewed by the US military, shows live streaming video of detainees' cells - some empty, while other frames show detainees pacing or sleeping, in Camp 6 at Guantanamo Bay Prison [AP]

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – A new policy has been implemented at Guantanamo that calls for prisoners to submit to a “pat down” of their genitals and buttocks when they leave the detention camps to meet with their lawyers and return to their cells, an official here confirmed Tuesday.

Navy Captain. Robert Durand, a Guantanamo spokesman, told Al Jazeera the new procedures were introduced about two weeks ago in an effort to stave off the alleged flow of “contraband” in and out of the detention camps. It’s one of several new strict protocols that went into effect at the detention facility since February.

David Remes, a Washington, DC-based human rights attorney who represents more than a dozen Yemeni prisoners, said the new policy amounts to “religious humiliation” and is a clear-cut attempt to break the nearly four-month-old hunger strike involving at least 100 prisoners.

“This is a disgusting tactic, but at the same time it shows the military’s complete frustration in the face of the men’s determination,” Remes said. “Its previous efforts have failed. In fact, the more pressure the military has applied and the more punishments it’s inflicted, the more determined the men have become.”

Cultural sensitivies

Durand said the policy was enacted in the aftermath of an April 13 pre-dawn raid on the communal Camp 6, in which hunger-striking prisoners were isolated in what appears to have been an attempt to bring an end to the protest. He denied the policy was connected to the hunger strike.

During a search of the prisoners’ cells following the raid, Durand said the Guantanamo guard force found “everything from iPods, improvised weapons, mp3 players, medications…all sorts of things a detainee shouldn’t have.”

“It’s not a strip search, it’s not a cavity search, it’s not a search where nudity is involved,” Durand told Al Jazeera. “It’s quick. We call it a full frisk pat down. It is done quickly, professionally, just to see if anyone is secreting anything on their body. It does include the buttocks and groin area. But it is not any different than what we submit to at the airport when we’re selected for a secondary pat down screening.”

Durand said the search is not limited to when prisoners meet with their attorneys but is conducted whenever a prisoner leaves the camp to go to another facility, such as the hospital or the behavioral health unit.

Still, the policy appears to completely detract from long-standing operating procedures (SOPs) that prohibited the touching of prisoners’ genitals due to cultural sensitivities.

Indeed, according to a 2009 Defense Department task force review of the conditions at Guantanamo, “Due to cultural sensitivities, modified frisk searching procedures are in place that respect the detainee’s groin area, and guards are not allowed to conduct frisk searches of this area. Guards are limited to grasping the waistband of detainees’ trousers, and shaking the pants.”

Moreover, the voluminous report produced following the Defense Department’s task force review says the commander of the Joint Detention Group “recognizes that the SOP does not permit searching of the Koran or detainee groin areas, which is contrary to standard security procedures in most detention facility operations, and that it carries a level of risk. However, he has accepted that risk out of an elevated respect for religious concerns of the detainees.”

The inspection of prisoners’ Korans is one of the primary causes, along with indefinite detention, that sparked the hunger strike. According to statements prisoners gave to their lawyers, Koran searches were abandoned entirely in 2006 and reintroduced in early February.

Durand said the task force’s report as “careful to note that the observations and recommendations were prescriptive in nature and it did not state ‘you must do it this way.”

Refusing to be searched

But the impact of the new policy has been that prisoners have now refused to meet with their attorneys, according to Remes and about a dozen other Guantanamo lawyers, because they do not want to be subjected to the search.

Durand confirmed that prisoners who fail to submit to the search “will forfeit that opportunity to go to their attorney phone call.” He said several prisoners have cited the new policy as the reason they refuse to meet with their attorneys.

But he emphasized that the body search was not designed to be an “impediment to attorney meetings or making phone calls or detainees seeking medical treatment or any appointment outside of the building.”

“It just represents a scene where contraband is more likely to be introduced and is the most likely avenue to transport contraband in and out of the camp,” Durand said. “If you exempt one area of the body from search that’s where things will get hidden.”

Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the UK-based human rights group Reprieve, which represents the last British resident at Guantanamo, Shaker Aamer, raised concerns about the new search policy in a letter he sent to British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

“Any pretext given for these new rules is just that: a pretext. The prisoners do not need to be sexually assaulted in order to be taken to a telephone to talk to their lawyer,” Smith wrote, adding that two of his clients would not meet with him to discuss their cases because of the search.

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