A top Pentagon official indicated this week in a letter to a human rights group that inspections of prisoners' Korans at the Guantanamo Bay prison - the catalyst behind a two-month-old hunger strike - will continue.
In a letter sent Monday to the New York City-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Marine Col. William K. Lietzau, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for rule of law and detainee policy, said Korans have been searched because of past "incidents" in which prisoners allegedly hid "improvised weapons, unauthorized food and medicine and other items" in the holy book.
Those materials could be utilized to "harm themselves, guards, medical personnel, translators, instructors, attorneys, or other detainees," Lietzau wrote. "Therefore it is imperative that the [Joint Task Force] conduct security inspections of the Qurans in accordance with applicable standard operating procedures."
Lietzau's letter was sent to CCR on behalf of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. CCR wrote to him March 14 to express "grave concern" about the health of prisoners participating in the hunger strike and to offer up solutions to end it, such as discontinuing Koran searches. Fifty attorneys who represent prisoners that have been detained for more than a decade signed the letter.
David Remes, a Washington, DC-based human rights attorney who represents more than a dozen prisoners, said Lietzau's letter, specifically Lietzau's claims about weapons and food being hidden inside Korans, "didn't even register with me because they make these claims all of the time."
"It's from their playbook," said Remes, one of the signators of the CCR letter. "What are they going to put in their Korans, pancakes?"
Remes pointed out that the Guantanamo prisoners are devout Muslims and using the Koran to hide anything would be considered an insult to the holy book.
Prisoners have told their attorneys Korans have not been searched since the last large-scale hunger strike in 2006, which was also staged after Korans were searched. Back then, the commander of the prison alleged that medications were found hidden in the bindings of some prisoners' Korans.
Lietzau noted that attorneys representing the prisoners have also raised these concerns recently "in a meeting with attorneys at the Department of Justice." But neither CCR nor spokespeople at the Department of Justice would comment on the substance of those talks.
Lietzau, a Yale-educated lawyer was one of the key officials in the Bush administration who, immediately after 9/11, helped design the Guantanamo military commissions that were later struck down as unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. He had served as special adviser to William "Jim" Haynes, "the top Pentagon lawyer during (Secretary of Defense) Donald H. Rumsfeld's tenure, when Rumsfeld and Haynes codified torture and indefinite detention as hallmarks of Bush-era terrorism policy," the now-defunct Washington Independent reported in February 2010 after the Obama administration announced that it had tapped him to serve as point person at the Pentagon on detainee matters.
Prior to his Pentagon appointment, Lietzau was deputy legal adviser to the National Security Council.
Lietzau acknowledged in his letter to CCR that he was "aware of reports that many detainees are engaged in a hunger strike" but he did not offer up any solutions in his letter on how to end it. He said the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), which operates the prison, will "continue its work to ensure the health and safety of the detainees."
Attorneys said some prisoners have lost more than 30 pounds since the protest started in early February. The attorneys maintain, based on discussions they have had with their clients, that all of Camp 6, where 130 or so "compliant" prisoners are detained, is participating in the hunger strike. The military, however, disputes the assertion, claiming 40 prisoners are refusing to eat, and 11 are being force-fed a nutritional supplement.
Mari Newman, an attorney representing Yemeni prisoner Musaab al-Madhwani, sought judicial relief. She filed an emergency motion in federal district court in Washington, DC last month asking a judge to address her client's claims that Guantanamo officials have stopped providing prisoners with safe drinking water since the hunger strike started, an allegation military officials dispute.
US District Court Judge Thomas Hogan, however, took the prisoner's claims seriously and set a hearing on the matter for April 15.
Over the past week, attorneys also received reports from some prisoners who claim they were physically abused and denied certain items required for medical reasons.
Indeed, Truthout reported earlier this week that Shaker Aamer, the last British resident detained at the prison, told his attorney he has been subjected to sleep deprivation and brutal forced cell extractions. Aamer, the last British prisoner at Guantanamo who was cleared for release five years ago, is being held in isolation at the maximum-security Camp 5. He said he has lost 32 pounds since he stopped eating in early February.
"Shaker has been badly punished for joining the strike. He has been denied various things that were ordered for medical reasons including his second isomat (for his back), his blanket (for arthritis), his knee brace (for his knee injury), his back brace for his back problems) and the pressure socks that are meant to help with the edema in his feet," stated a sworn declaration signed by Aamer's attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the UK-based human rights organization, Reprieve.
A spokesman for JTF-GTMO did not respond to requests for comment about Aamer's claims of mistreatment.
Lietzau said in his letter the detention operations at Guantanamo are conducted "humanely and in accordance with the highest standards."
Omar Farah, a CCR attorney who also signed the March 13 letter sent to Hagel, was highly critical of Lietzau's response, saying his assurances that the government is concerned about the well-being of Guantanamo prisoners "offers little comfort."
"Resolving this crisis requires the Guantanamo prison administration to engage the prisoners in order to address the serious complaints that triggered the hunger strike," said Farah, who represents 11 prisoners. "Nothing in Lietzau's letter suggests they will take this sensible approach."