The case of the Guantánamo detainee who wanted to see the sun
Yasin Ismail's case highlights the difficulty of verifying conditions of confinement.
U.S. NAVAL STATION, GUANTáNAMO BAY, CUBA
Seeing the sun in the sky and feeling the warmth on your face is not a particularly momentous event – unless you haven't seen the sun for a long time.Skip to next paragraph
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Last month, on Jan. 7, Guantánamo detainee No. 522 wanted to feel the sun on his face. He asked to be moved from his shaded exercise "pen" to a vacant adjacent pen in the open sunlight.
A guard allegedly told him: "You're not allowed to see the sun."
The incident is important, say lawyers for the detainees, because it highlights the oppressive, punitive character of daily interactions between guards and detainees at the controversial prison camp here.
Military officials, on the other hand, say it illustrates how savvy detainees try to manipulate the system to continue fighting the US behind bars by any means available.
But the Jan. 7 incident may be significant for a different reason: It highlights an absence of independent scrutiny of detainee treatment at the Gauntánamo detention camp and the impossibility under current circumstances of determining who is telling the truth.
On a recent tour by reporters of the Guantánamo camp, questions about the incident were dismissed by military officials with general denials. Requests to see medical records, incident reports, video tapes, and investigation documents were rejected. Officials said surveillance cameras in the exercise area are not equipped with recording devices and thus cannot be reviewed to verify the guards' account or establish Mr. Ismail as a liar or as a bonafide victim.
Reporters are not allowed to interview detainees. Nor are they permitted to conduct unsupervised interviews with guards and other camp personnel. Every interview during a recent two-day tour of the camp was conducted in the presence of at least one, and frequently several, military officials. Some took notes of what was being said and asked.
The Jan. 7 incident is minor compared with the massive policy challenges facing President Obama in trying to fulfill his pledge to close the Guantánamo detention camp within a year. But it does raise a more fundamental issue: There is nothing in the Geneva Conventions specifically mentioning access to the sun or to fresh air.
Common Article 3 of the conventions requires that detainees "shall in all circumstances be treated humanely." That is the essence of the government's duty.
But what does Mr. Obama consider to be humane?
A special Pentagon review panel is expected to release a report – perhaps as early as Monday – assessing whether the 242 prisoners being held here are being held under humane conditions of confinement.
News reports have quoted unnamed sources as saying that although the review panel will suggest a few changes at Guantánamo, it essentially finds that the prison camp for terrorists complies with the demands of the Geneva Conventions.
If these findings are embraced by the Obama administration and set in policy, it would mark a major setback for detainee lawyers and human rights groups who have been fighting to bring a measure of due process into the detention camps. Some are asking for the placement of independent human rights monitors in the camps.
The US Supreme Court has ruled that Guantánamo detainees have a constitutional right to file habeas corpus lawsuits with federal judges in Washington, D.C., to challenge the legality of their ongoing open-ended military detention.
But the high court has declined to address whether similar legal and constitutional protections also apply to the detainees' conditions of confinement.