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Story Publication logo August 10, 2020

Red Cross Cancels Guantánamo Visit Over Coronavirus Cases

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The entrance to Camp 1 in Guantanamo Bay's Camp Delta. The base's detention camps are numbered based on the order in which they were built, not their order of precedence or level of security. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem. Cuba, 2018. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
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Carol Rosenberg has covered the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and related news since...

A detention center at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. A delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross typically includes a medical officer and delivers mail and relays messages from families. Image by Doug Mills/The New York Times. United States, 2020.
A detention center at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. A delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross typically includes a medical officer and delivers mail and relays messages from families. Image by Doug Mills/The New York Times. United States, 2020.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has canceled its coming quarterly visit to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, citing the perils of travel during the pandemic, making for its longest absence from the prison since it opened in January 2002.

The humanitarian organization, based in Geneva, last visited the 40 wartime detainees in early March. A delegation typically includes a medical officer and delivers mail, relays messages from families, and raises concerns with the American military through confidential conversations.

But Elizabeth Gorman Shaw, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Washington, said on Friday that it had "made the difficult choice of canceling its second quarterly visit of the year due to increased risks of Covid-19."

"The record-high infection rate, coupled with international air travel risk and logistical constraints, were major concerns that led the I.C.R.C. to make this decision," she added.

The Navy base of 6,000 residents reported two cases of the virus, in March and April, then imposed a blackout on disclosures. It has no instant testing for the coronavirus and sends samples to the mainland, at the discretion of medical staff at the base's 12-bed hospital.

The Navy captain in charge of the base requires that arrivals be quarantined for 14 days to determine if they become symptomatic. Red Cross delegates had initially intended to travel there this month, for what would have been the 135th visit to the prisoners since 2002.

The cancellation comes at a time of particular isolation at Guantánamo. No lawyer has been to the base since February although some have spoken with the prisoners by telephone.

The lawyer for one long-held Yemeni prisoner said Friday that she was disappointed by the decision and concerned that her client, Sharqawi al-Hajj, 46, had not had access to anyone other than prison employees since he cut his wrists last year.

Independent doctors have deemed Mr. al-Hajj suicidal, said Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Based on recent telephone calls with him, she said, "His condition is very worrying."

Ms. Shaw said that from afar, her organization had been able to "facilitate many phone calls and exchange a steady flow of Red Cross messages" between Guantánamo detainees and their families.

Guantánamo prison employees supervise the telephone calls, which are handled by the Red Cross or an affiliate on the other end of the line, and the American military distributes the letters to the detainees when Red Cross representatives are unable to be there to deliver the mail in person.

Days earlier, the Army judge overseeing the Guantánamo war crimes court canceled an early airlift to the base in September for a pretrial hearing in the case of five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That case has for years been plagued by a variety of delays, notably the abrupt announcement in March of the trial judge's resignation.

But the chief judge, Col. Douglas K. Watkins, who has been handling the case in a caretaker status, noted in his cancellation order that prosecutors had failed to file a promised proposal for an ambitious eight-week trip. About 100 people would have had to quarantine in an array of tents and trailers in the crude compound called Camp Justice in a bid to make progress in the case.

Military judges have canceled at least five rounds of hearings in Guantánamo's military commissions cases since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, with one noting that the Navy's 14-day quarantine at the base had "unduly burdensome logistical requirements."

This week, the Pentagon adjusted its policy to permit some military forces and contractors to quarantine in the United States for 14 days before overseas travel. But Maj. Gregory J. McElwain, a spokesman for the United States Southern Command, which oversees detention operations at Guantánamo, said on Friday that the prison would continue its offshore quarantine policy "to ensure the health and safety of our troops and detainee population."

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