Red Cross Expresses Alarm Over Detainee Health at Guantánamo Bay

A recovery room at a clinic in the Camp 5 detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, April 17, 2019.  (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

A recovery area at a Clinic in the Camp 5 Detention Center at Guantanamo bay, Cuba on April 17, 2019 (Doug Mills/The New York Times).

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — A senior official with the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a rare statement of alarm on Friday about deteriorating health conditions and inadequate preparations for aging prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

The U.S. military must do a better job of providing care for prisoners who are “experiencing the symptoms of accelerated aging, worsened by the cumulative effects of their experiences and years spent in detention,” Patrick Hamilton, the head of the Red Cross delegation for the United States and Canada, said in the statement.

In March, Hamilton and other delegates made a routine quarterly visit to the detention facility, the organization’s 146th since the wartime prison opened in January 2002. He said the detainees’ “physical and mental health needs are growing and becoming increasingly challenging.”

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“Consideration must be given to adapting the infrastructure for the detainees’ evolving needs and disabilities, as well as the rules that govern their daily lives,” said Hamilton, who had last visited the prison in 2003, when 660 men and boys were held there. Today, 30 detainees remain.

Red Cross officials do not usually comment on the conditions of the detention center, as they prefer to keep their communication with the U.S. Government confidential.

Quarterly visits usually include a meeting with the commander of the Michigan National Guard’s detention facility, who is presently a brigadier-general. The delegation, which includes a physician, meets with the detainees and interviews those who are soon to be released. They also deliver messages from their families.

Hamilton said military officials at Guantánamo were “offering some temporary solutions” to the prisoners’ increasing physical and mental health needs.

He urged President Joe Biden’s administration and Congress to, as a priority, “find adequate and sustainable solutions to address these issues.”

Lawyers for some of the prisoners, particularly those who spent years in harsh, secret CIA custody before Guantánamo, have said detainees have brain damage and disorders from blows and sleep deprivation, damaged gastrointestinal systems from rectal abuse and issues possibly linked to prolonged shackling and other confinement.

One of the most debilitated prisoners is Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, who is in his 60s and is the prison’s oldest detainee. He has undergone six operations on his spine and back at Guantánamo Bay since 2017 by Navy medical teams who were airlifted to the base.

His lawyer, Susan Hensler, said Friday that Hadi al-Iraqi was recently diagnosed with “severe osteoporosis” that likely contributed to problems in his most recent operation, in November. She explained that the doctors had inserted a metal device in his back. However, it fell out and caused screws to become loose. Navy doctors are planning to bring another team to the base in this year to perform a new surgery using larger screws.

The Red Cross statement came less than one month after a team of United Nations inspectors made public the complaint they presented to the United States, on January 11, about health care at the prison in general and Hadi al Iraqi specifically.

Hamilton said the United States needed to adopt a “more comprehensive approach” to detainee health care. “All detainees must receive access to adequate health care that accounts for both deteriorating mental and physical conditions — whether at Naval Station Guantánamo Bay or elsewhere. This includes cases of medical emergencies.”

“At the same time, consideration must be given to adapting the infrastructure for the detainees’ evolving needs and disabilities, as well as the rules that govern their daily lives,” he said.

Air conditioning problems have been reported by government employees at the prisons for detainees during the Ramadan month, which is now ending.

The military has not yet commented on the Red Cross or the Air Conditioning issue.

The Red Cross official also urged the Pentagon to grant its prisoners longer, more frequent phone calls with family members, “bearing in mind the total absence of in-person visits.”

Lawyers claim that in general, detainees have the right to communicate with their family four times a calendar year.

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