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Some Guantanamo detainees may get family visits

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — With the prison camps now in their 13th year, the U.S. military is willing to allow some war-on-terror captives to have family visits — if the International Red Cross can find a Caribbean country to host the prisoners’ relatives between day trips to this remote U.S. Navy base.

It is not yet known which captives would be allowed to meet wives, children or other relatives at this base. Of the 155 detainees, federal review boards have approved 77 for release, with security arrangements.

A key obstacle to the visits is the U.S. Southern Command’s insistence that family members would be forbidden from sleeping at this 45-square-mile outpost of more than 5,000 residents with hotels, a tent city and suburban-style neighborhoods.

So such visits would require the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.S. government reaching agreement with a third country in the region as the base of an air bridge for captives’ relatives on day trips to family reunions.

At SOUTHCOM, the commander, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, “is in favor of doing that,” said his spokesman Army Col. Greg Julian. “We don’t want to put them up overnight; it would be just a day’s visit.”

Any negotiations would be handled by the Pentagon’s Office of the Secretary of Defense and the State Department, he said. Kelly has oversight of the running of the prison camps.

Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos, Grand Cayman and some Bahamian islands are within 90 minutes by air of Guantanamo.

At Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C., spokeswoman Anna Nelson declined to specify which nations, if any, the organization had approached.

“We are actively exploring different options at this time,” she said in response to a Miami Herald query on Tuesday. “The ICRC believes that family visits are very important for both the detainees and their relatives.”

“This is especially relevant when it comes to situations of prolonged detention,” she added, calling family visits “in line with international standards found under international human rights and humanitarian law.”

It was also unclear who would pay for the air bridge.

Many of the captives got to Guantanamo in the first year of the detention center, and most, if not all, of those approved for transfer have been at the prison camps for a decade.

The State Department did not respond to several inquiries from the Miami Herald about any negotiations that may be underway. The war-on-terror prisoners here are from 21 countries — the majority are Yemeni — and family members could require a series of visas and travel permits to reach Guantanamo.

A Pentagon spokesman declined to say which captives might get family reunions.

Guantanamo’s former CIA captives, for example the alleged Sept. 11 conspirators, have been allowed to exchange U.S.-censored, Red Cross messages with relatives, according to war court testimony. But they are forbidden to have Skype chats with families like the majority of captives held in low-value-detainee lockups.

“No decisions have been made regarding family visits,” said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale. “Any discussion about logistics and procedures for such visits is premature.”

The Red Cross recently made the 100th delegation visit to the detention center since the Bush administration first granted the Geneva-based global organization access to Camp X-ray soon after the prison opened in January 2002.

Across those 100 visits, according to the ICRC, they have carried in and out 70,000 pieces of mail. In 2008, after negotiations between the Red Cross and Southcom, the U.S. allowed 3,100 phone or video calls with prison staff listening in.

“But, at the end of the day, nothing can replace face-to-face contact,” Nelson said. “This is why we have long advocated for family visits to become a reality at Guantanamo.”

At Southcom, Julian said the military would not consider letting the captives’ relatives sleep on the base — an accommodation that was made for Australian prisoner David Hicks’ family prior to his 2007 plea deal that paved his way home.

“It’s just a real difficult security effort if you start allowing overnights or anything like that,” the colonel said.

The possibility comes amid a year-old hunger strike by an unknown number of captives protesting their indefinite detention. Over the summer, more than 100 prisoners took part.

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