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To burn or not to burn? Guantanamo won’t answer the question about detainees’ artwork

Yemeni captive Moath al Alwi made this mini-gondola from paper and other found objects at the Camp 6 communal prison for low value detainees at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay. He presented it to his lawyer, Beth Jacob, as a gift the first time they met. It was on display on October 25, 2017, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice as part of an exhibit of art made at the prison by captives past and present.

CAROL ROSENBERG, MIAMI HERALD/TNS

By CAROL ROSENBERG | Miami Herald | Published: December 28, 2017

MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — Troops at Guantanamo currently aren’t incinerating detainee art, but the military isn’t saying whether the commander has adopted a no-burn recommendation from higher headquarters as prison policy.

The U.S. Southern Command recommended soon after Thanksgiving that Navy Rear Adm. Edward Cashman, who commands the Detention Center staff of 1,500 troops and civilians, design a local policy that would allow for the archival, instead of incineration, of art created by its 41 captives. But prison spokeswoman Cmdr. Anne Leanos is refusing to say whether Cashman’s Joint Task Force specifically adopted that recommendation.

“Detainee produced items continue to be documented and catalogued consistent with established policy and procedures,” Leanos said, repeatedly declining to elaborate on whether incineration was still an option. “The JTF does not discuss specifics of security protocols.”

The latest protocols are in response to an instruction in October by the office of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, she reminded, to suspend the releases of art from the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba. Someone in Mattis’ office was troubled by the discovery that a New York City exhibit offered some Guantanamo detainees’ art for sale, and concluded the captives’ creations were U.S. government property. The prison had routinely released art to the prisoners’ lawyers after inspecting it for secret messages.

The idea of incineration was a local one, told to a detainee by a JTF staff member, possibly improvising on the military tradition of using burn bags to dispose of classified or sensitive information. But Leanos referred questions back to the Pentagon, which beyond imposing the ban left the mechanics of local art handling up to the Detention Center.

At Southcom, on Christmas Eve, all spokeswoman Army Col. Lisa Garcia would say was: “Burning of art is not occurring. Currently, excess art is being stored at the JTF. Detainees still have access to art classes and can keep a small amount of art in their cells. When and where the art will be moved for storage is a policy decision.” Earlier, she had told The Miami Herald that Southcom was recommending to the prison that the staff archive detainee artwork rather than discard it.

The prison has a certain measure of autonomy under Southcom commander Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd. His predecessor, former Marine Gen. John Kelly, now White House chief of staff, more intimately directed policy from his perch in South Florida.

©2017 Miami Herald
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