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Gitmo Inc.: Prisoners have a business plan

A bus passes by Camp VI in the early evening at the detention center on the U.S. Navy base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on August 2012.

No, it’s not a kibbutz. But the crude jailhouse plans for a “Milk & Honey” farm business in Yemen are suggestive of one.

Five war-on-terrorism captives in the Guantanamo prison have designed a self-sufficient agricultural business west of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. They envision a community of 200 families, 100 houses, 10 cows, 500 chickens, 50 sheep, a honeybee subsidiary and computer system powered by windmills.

The would-be entrepreneurs drew up a 75-page prospectus before a hunger strike by Guantanamo prisoners. But it recently emerged from U.S. military censorship at an opportune time — as the Obama administration searches for ways to safely send some prisoners home to Yemen and close the Pentagon’s costly prison camps in Cuba.

And, while the quirky business model makes no mention of the potent al-Qaida franchise that U.S. officials fear will attract freed Yemeni prisoners, it does illustrate that some of the 155 captives have a vision of life after a dozen years in American detention without charge or trial.

It is also the product of calmer, more trustworthy times at Guantanamo — before the guard shakedowns, genital searches and gunshots that put the prisoners under lockdown for their hunger strike. And the thrust of the project strikes Yemen expert Charles Schmitz as quite realistic.

“Yemen could really use some low tech, sustainable technologies,” said Schmitz, a professor of geography at Towson University who read a copy of the plan at the request of the Miami Herald. “Yemenis are very innovative; you could see it in what they’re doing.”

Schmitz has been visiting the poor Arabian peninsula country for 20 years and has at times worked as a translator at Guantanamo. He doesn’t know the five men who who drew up the plan, the self-described Milk & Honey Board of Directors. Each is an indefinite detainee, meaning that in 2009 the Obama administration declared them impossible to try but too dangerous to let go.

But Schmitz saw in the scheme a blend of Yemeni ingenuity and Guantanamo influences.

Honey, in particular, is “a big deal in Yemen,” he said, where people endow it with “curative health qualities and magic powers” — and pay top dollar for it. Wind energy is a largely untapped power, but the detainees can see it in the huge turbines that loom over the U.S. Navy base and are visible at the prison camps.

Of the 155 men held at Guantanamo, 77 are approved for transfer with security precautions. The majority of them are Yemeni.

Attorney David Remes, who represents several of the would-be directors, said the captives drew it up in the year before the hunger strike. That was before Army guards took control of the communal prison camp. More sympathetic Navy guards had let cooperative captives set up a Business School Behind Bars — and let a suspected al-Qaida financier run it as a self-styled Dean of Students.

Any riff on the Bible’s reference to Israel as the Land of Milk and Honey, according to Remes, is probably unintentional.

“I really doubt it was conscious,” said the lawyer, who has provided free legal services to about 20 Guantanamo detainees, not all Yemeni, for more than a decade.

He said the goal of a self-sustaining community “is something that has been dreamed about by many societies through the years, including by individuals in the United States.”

Enter Saifullah Paracha, a former Pakistani businessman and American resident whom the U.S. captured in Bangkok in 2003 on suspicion of financial dealings with Osama bin Laden. At 66, Paracha is Guantanamo’s oldest prisoner. He set up the class but speaks no Arabic, said Remes, and insisted that the prisoners learn English for the class, as the language of international business.

“We had 24 hours open access. There were about 35 inmates,” Paracha wrote recently in an account he sent the Obama administration parole board. They set up a “classroom with desks and chairs. There I had many students. Some of them were angry and rebellious. I kept them busy with extra homework.”

At times, the business plan they produced sounds like a social studies project. It has a primer on free-range versus conventional chicken raising, a section on educating the farmers’ children from kindergarten “based on Montessori pre-school training” — hand-colored maps and tables of statistics.

Guantanamo commanders have said for years that while the captives watch satellite TV reports from the Arab world they don’t have access to the Internet inside their prisons. They get books and magazines from a prison camp library.

But the plan shows they know all about it. Their plan proposes a networked laptop in every farmhouse with capital raised through “Kickstarter” or other social media entrepreneurship.

The current prison management suggested in a brief statement that the business school was probably sanctioned by the administration, as Paracha wrote the parole board.

“Detainees in Camp 6 are in a communal setting,” said Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, “allowing them to interact up to 18 hours a day. The ability for one detainee to organize/instruct multiple detainees in business or agricultural practices is not surprising or prohibited.”

Some of it seems a bit fanciful, and may bear the imprint of a decade-plus detention at the U.S. Navy base cloistered behind a minefield in southeast Cuba.

The Milk & Honey Board of Directors want a private telephone exchange, fiber-optic internet communication, school, hospital, car rental office, bank, park, motor pool, mosque and post office — just like Guantanamo, where a Navy goal is self-sufficiency also.

The U.S. military is building a $40 million fiber-optic link between the base and Florida and the Navy has experimented with recycling cooking oil as fuel. The prisoners want to fuel their farm on wind energy and make gas from cow dung.

The five Guantanamo prisoners who designed the proposed Yemen Milk & Honey Farms Ltd., business also named themselves to the Board of Directors. They are Abdulsalam al Hela, Prisoner 1463, chairman; Saeed Jarabh, Prisoner 235, managing director; and Abdul Rahman Ahmed, prisoner 441, director and secretary; Khaled Ahmad Qasim, Prisoner 242 and Abdul Malik Wahab al Rahabi, Prisoner 37, directors.

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