This article was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
WASHINGTON – Delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross who visited Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic, were unable to meet some of the prisoners held there because restrictions imposed by the U.S. military made it impossible for either side to meet to entertain, say lawyers for the prisoners.
The Red Cross delegation, which works to ensure humane conditions for prisoners of war around the world, left base Tuesday after a three-week visit that began with a two-week quarantine that the military requires of all visitors during the Covid-19 crisis .
The Red Cross canceled two visits earlier this year because of the pandemic, removing the detainees’ only contact with an independent outside organization that oversees the conditions under which they are being held.
During the prisoner visits that began last week, the first since March by the organization, prisoners and Red Cross delegates were kept six feet apart in a briefing room separated by a plexiglass barrier. Prisoners and delegates both wore white biohazard hooded overalls and N95 respirators.
Attorneys for several prisoners at the base’s classified compound, Camp 7, said one or two prisoners met with a Red Cross delegate, but noted that health protection imposed by the military made it impossible to have a conversation. Soon afterwards, the other prisoners’ appointments were canceled.
Elizabeth Gorman Shaw, an International Red Cross spokeswoman who considers her conversations with the prisoners and the military confidential, declined to discuss the issues raised during the meetings, but said the delegation was “making its quarterly visit to Guantánamo Bay in the best possible way under Covid conditions. “
The organization has visited the prison at least four times a year since it opened in January 2002, but canceled two quarterly visits this year due to the pandemic.
A prison spokesman for the United States Southern Command in Doral, Fla., Maj. Gregory J. McElwain, said the decision to combine personal protective equipment with “engineering controls like plexiglass barriers” was based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The prison task force of 1,500 soldiers “has a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of inmates and guards,” he said.
Neither the military nor the Red Cross would disclose how many of the 40 prisoners of war had scheduled appointments and how many were canceled.
Major McElwain said the military had made efforts to include the Red Cross team.
In the spring, the military announced that two people out of a population of 6,000 had been infected with the virus, one of whom was assigned to prison staff, but then imposed a power outage. The base imposed increased health for a week in October while sending tests to the mainland to alert lawyers of the fear, which came back negative.
Brig. General John G. Baker, a naval defense attorney who met with an inmate last month under similar conditions, said the distance and obstacles made his conversation difficult and muffled. It took place in a meeting room that usually has both an air conditioner and a dehumidifier blowing. He was forbidden to give or show any documents to the inmate.
General Baker said that once he had put on the prison’s required clothing, which included surgical boots, only his eyes and forehead were visible, and the same was true of the prisoner.
Most of the prisoners have been kept in some kind of bubble since the beginning of the pandemic. Only two lawyers reached the base and reduced contact with the guards.
A prisoner wrote to his lawyer in a letter this week that the Red Cross “has decided to cancel the remaining appointments in protest at the excessive measures.” The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity and refused to name the prisoner without first obtaining his permission, which would take several days due to the delayed communication between lawyers and prisoners via a secure postal system.
James G. Connell III, a death penalty attorney, said his client, Ammar al Baluchi, was among several former C.I.A. Prisoners who had an appointment with the Red Cross were canceled. He said the outcome of the meeting did not bode well for the Pentagon’s efforts to resume hearings early next year on the case of Mr. al Baluchi and four other men allegedly involved in the September 11, 2001 abductions conspired that nearly killed 3,000 people.
“It’s impossible to communicate on complicated subjects through a plexiglass wall,” he said. “When the I.C.R.C. cannot speak to prisoners through a plexiglass wall. How do you expect a trial through a wall? “
No proceedings have been carried out in the case since February. Military contractors have installed plexiglass in the national security cavernous courtroom, including a barrier between lawyers and prisoners, to resume hearings before the pandemic ended.
The prospect of a retrial in the capital’s 9/11 case has gotten a new hook this week. Prosecutors filed a Move on Tuesday, he called on the Air Force judge tasked with the case to resign as unqualified for not having served a full two years as a military judge, which is required by military commission rules.
Prosecutors rejected the election of Lt. Col. Matthew N. McCall on the day he was assigned to the case, October 16, and repeatedly urged him to end the case in notices and other court records. In Tuesday’s filing, he was specifically asked to either withdraw or stop making decisions.
Colonel McCall, the sixth judge to handle the death penalty case since the defendants were indicted in 2012, has extended the trial time on this case in the face of the virus. In fact, this is postponing the jury’s selection until after the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks next year.