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Story Publication logo May 28, 2020

Senators Seek Answers on Coronavirus Protections at Guantánamo Bay

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.

Carol Rosenberg tells both big-sweep and incremental stories about the court and captives at...

The medical clinic at Guantanamo Bay’s detention center. Health care on the base is limited for detainees and service members. Image by Doug Mills / The New York Times. United States, undated.
The medical clinic at Guantanamo Bay’s detention center. Health care on the base is limited for detainees and service members. Image by Doug Mills / The New York Times. United States, undated.

WASHINGTON — A group of senators has written the defense secretary expressing concern about the potential for a "significant outbreak" of the coronavirus at the Pentagon prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, seeking answers to how the military is safeguarding the 40 prisoners there and the American forces responsible for them.

In the letter, circulated by Senator Elizabeth Warren and signed by 13 other Democrats and Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, the lawmakers cited "the lack of a comprehensive medical infrastructure" at the base, which sends all residents except the detainees to health care facilities in the United States for complex or protracted medical care.

The senators sent the letter to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Wednesday as the Pentagon was delegating to military commanders around the world some authority to ease restrictions related to the virus, consistent with the Trump administration's guidelines. They set a deadline of June 10 to provide details about available care and prevention procedures.

The Defense Department has acknowledged only two confirmed cases among Guantánamo Bay's 6,000 residents, both of them U.S. service members who have recovered, and declined to say whether there were others. But some troop rotations have continued during the pandemic, with flights from Navy bases in Florida and Virginia taking new residents and family members. New arrivals must isolate themselves for two weeks before they can move about the base.

The Guantánamo Navy base has a small community hospital, which has been checking the temperatures of potential patients in a triage tent and sending some samples to the United States for testing.

By law, the prisoners are forbidden from entering the United States for any reason — trial, medical care, detention. So the Pentagon has for years dispatched medical teams with sophisticated equipment to the base to carry out procedures and surgeries that the other residents receive elsewhere. Visiting surgeons have done spine operations, colonoscopies, amputations and rectal reconstruction. In one instance, the military brought in a team to conduct a cardiac catheterization, but the prisoner refused to consent to it.

In their letter, the senators describe the 40 men imprisoned at Guantánamo, whom the United States has detained for 12 to 18 years, as an "aging and chronically ill population, some of whom retain the mental and physical wounds of torture."

The prisoners range in age from their mid-30s to 72, and the military has for years been planning for their end-of-life care. Some prisoners have recently told their lawyers that while some communal confinement continues, the guards have segregated more medically at-risk detainees, such as those with heart conditions and diabetes, from the younger prisoners.

The military has said it has declined to test any of the detainees for the virus because none of them meet the criteria from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has refused to disclose how many, if any, functioning ventilators there are on the outpost, which uses outside contractors to do maintenance and repair of some medical equipment.

During the pandemic, commanders have also reduced the number of troops who can go near the prisoners. The guards are mostly National Guard forces, civilians who are mobilized to serve nine months as military police at Guantánamo. They arrive in staggered deployments of about 100 at a time throughout the year.

The military has said it cannot disclose how many of Guantánamo's residents, one third of them service members, have been tested or found to carry the virus because it could "jeopardize operations" at the base.

The base shut down most activities in March, closing the gym, church and cinemas and converting the restaurants and dining rooms to takeout service. Golfing with socially distant partners is now permitted at the base's scrubby nine-hole course, but the estimated 250 elementary through high school students are learning at home. No decision has been made on whether the eight seniors will be able to assemble for their graduation on June 5.

All military commission hearings have been suspended, as have legal meetings between lawyers and the five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The next hearing in the long-running Sept. 11 proceedings is scheduled for July 20. But the case is awaiting appointment of a permanent military judge with training in handling death-penalty trials. Meantime, the pandemic has forced two delays in litigation deadlines, pushing jury selection in the case to April 12, 2021, at the soonest.

Under the current procedures for preventing the spread of the virus, a new judge, lawyers, linguists, reporters and others who commute to the war court proceedings would have to reach there by July 6 for two weeks of isolation before assembling at the court.

In addition to Ms. Warren of Massachusetts and Mr. Sanders of Vermont, the letter was signed by Senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, Thomas R. Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein of California, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.


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