Politics & Government

No more Big Macs, other treats at Guantanamo legal meetings

A Sudanese captive and his lawyers baked a Guantanamo guilty plea over chocolate chip cookies. Attorneys for a sickly Syrian hunger striker got him to sip juice while working on federal court strategy. Child soldier Omar Khadr passed through his adolescence behind the razor wire in Cuba chowing down on pizza and McDonald’s with his lawyers.

Now, a new rule going into effect Wednesday at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba forbids food at legal conferences for the first time in a decade – the prison says for health and safety reasons – to the consternation of lawyers who say breaking bread has been crucial to coexistence between American attorneys and their captive Guantanamo clients after years in legal limbo.

“It’s actually quite tragic for the clients. Sometimes the food we bring is the only thing from the outside world they’ve seen in months, and they really look forward to it,” said attorney Alka Pradhan, who has brought to meetings, after military inspection, everything from Egg McMuffins and traditional Middle East sweets to fresh fruit and granola bars.

That lawyer, who no longer represents Khadr and spoke on condition he not be identified, has defended several accused terrorists at Guantanamo as well as American soldiers accused of crimes in Germany. He said he brought his clients’ meals to meetings in both places, in uniform.

But at the remote U.S. Navy base, the custom of eating with a captive across a meeting table at Camp Echo – the prisoner shackled by an ankle to the floor – took on cultural and symbolic significance almost from the start when lawyers brought burgers and breakfast sandwiches from the base McDonald’s to prison meetings in 2005.

The U.S. Supreme Court had said captives could see lawyers after years of isolation. But they were strangers, Americans who volunteered to defend men captured and cast as fanatical, suicidal al-Qaida terrorists in the raw era after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Meetings required an act of faith on both sides. Attorneys had to trust that the captive would not hurl a hot cup of coffee at them. Captives had to trust that the lawyers were providing meals consistent with Islam’s prohibition on pork.

Some attorneys moved on to traditional Middle East or Afghan food – falafel, hummus, baklava, kebabs – brought from restaurants in the Washington, D.C., region, or prepared in guest quarters before meetings. The two sides met across a taste of home, or at least something new, with the captive playing host, sharing the food if he chose.

By 2007, the prison provided some lawyers with a kitchen for reheating the meals, and refrigerating them at Camp Echo.

Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, the prison spokesman, said this week’s “procedural modification” was “in the best interest of health, sanitation, safety and force protection.” He cited no specific episode that ended the policy beyond “ongoing patterns of possible improper sanitation and health practices,” and a desire to imitate procedures at federal prisons and the military’s disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

“A legal room is not designed to be a dining facility,” said Gresback, who is concluding a yearlong stint with the temporary 2,000-member prison staff.

It’s true that normal prisons don’t let lawyers bring in food, said Kadidal, the New York defense attorney. But, he said, Guantanamo is “the exact opposite of a normal prison.”

At Guantanamo, he said, U.S. troops comb through the defense lawyers’ legal documents, something he says doesn’t happen at a normal prison.

Eating during meetings had “just become an accepted part of the routine” at Guantanamo, Kadidal added, “a bit of compensation for the hassles of being shackled and stuffed into a van to meet with your lawyers in a tin shed in Camp Echo when the litigation isn’t really going anywhere.”

Pradhan, of the London-based legal defense firm Reprieve, called the new rule “petty and nasty.”

She said it suddenly deprives the prisoners of “a little slice of the outside world for a couple of hours” without wondering whether a guard had spit or mixed pork into the food as they shared a meal with a lawyer, “someone who’s not needlessly hostile to them.”

The new rule is the latest long running accommodation withdrawn by prison leadership under the command of Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, who is likewise ending his year tour there soon.

Earlier, Cozad recommended a Navy nurse face trial for refusing to force-feed detainees, something medical professionals said was a reversal of a promise to not punish military health care providers for raising ethical objections. Cozad also implemented a policy of using female guards as escorts at the high-value-detainee prison, something some devout detainees said broke a long-running practice of having male soldiers handle detainees who raised religious objections to being touched by women.

The new rule also comes as an undisclosed number of the 122 captives, 57 of them cleared for release, are on a long-running hunger strike the prison prefers to call a non-religious fast.

Lawyers said, while disappointed they’re not surprised. A stove and microwave used by both guards and defense attorneys recently vanished from the compound where former CIA captives meet with their lawyers.

In the years Navy Reserve Commander Suzanne Lachelier was working with a Sudanese captive at Guantanamo on his war crimes case, she would ferry Lebanese and Afghan food from Washington. She would add fresh baked chocolate chip cookies from a base cafeteria.

“The main point was to allow the ‘sharing of bread,' whatever that bread was,” said Lachelier, who no longer represents Guantanamo detainees.

After years in custody without charge, she recalled, bringing him food permitted him to play host, if briefly, to offering his lawyer a cookie from an otherwise powerless state of indefinite detention. She won’t quantify it but said it in some measure helped the working relationship.

The captive, Ibrahim al Qosi, would eventually trade a guilty plea in exchange for returning home in 2012 from more than a decade of U.S. military detention. He admitted to association with Osama bin Laden, including running an al-Qaida kitchen in Afghanistan.