MIAMI — Some prisoners in the highest-security unit of the Guantanamo Bay detention center have launched a protest against what they consider the religiously offensive use of female guards to move them around the U.S. base in Cuba, lawyers for the men say.
Prisoners designated by the government as "high-value detainees" because of their allegedly significant involvement in terrorism recently began refusing to meet with defense lawyers appointed by the Pentagon to defend them against war crimes charges unless the military agrees to use only men to escort them to meetings, according to several lawyers involved.
The men are devout Muslims and their religious beliefs include a prohibition against physical contact with women who aren't related to them. Marine Corps Maj. Derek Poteet, who represents accused terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said his client refused a meeting Thursday because of the use of female guards for escort duty, a practice that was halted in 2007 but recently resumed.
Lawyers for Mohammed, who is charged with orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and other prisoners have asked the military to agree to use only men for the duty but so far not gotten a response.
"We are not asking for anything new," he said. "We are asking to go back to where it was, when they respected and accommodated their religious objection to being touched against their will by a member of the opposite sex."
The protest is confined to Camp 7, a section of Guantanamo thought to hold about 15 of the so-called high value detainees. It is not publicly known how many are involved or how often they have refused to leave their cells for legal, medical or other appointments that would require an escort. The U.S. holds a total of 149 prisoners, a majority of whom live in a communal setting that requires little to no physical contact with troops.
Lawyers for high-value prisoners have been reluctant to speak in detail about the protest, in part because they realize their clients are unlikely to engender much public sympathy. But they also say it's a serious issue for the detainees.
"It is a religious sensitivity that is well-grounded in religious belief and no detaining power can abuse that," said Walter Ruiz, who represents Mustafa al-Hawsawi, another of the defendants in the Sept. 11 case.
U.S. officials have long touted the military's respect for religious belief at Guantanamo, where each cell is adorned with an arrow pointing in the direction of Mecca for daily prayers and special meals are served during the holy period of Ramadan. A base spokesman, Navy Capt. Thomas Gresback, wouldn't discuss the objection to female escorts in any detail, declining even to confirm whether there has been a protest but said there are no changes planned.
"We have no intentions of changing the assignments of the members of the ... guard force based on gender," Gresback said.
The legal team that represents another Sept. 11 defendant, Walid bin Attash, has filed a legal challenge to the female escorts, arguing that it violates his constitutionally protected religious freedom. Prosecutors have not responded and no hearing has been scheduled on the issue.
Lawyers say the dispute is likely to add further delay to proceedings that have been stalled repeatedly since the arraignment in May 2012 if they can't meet with their clients to discuss defense efforts. "I will be down there next week and I hope it's not a wasted trip," Poteet said.