Pentagon lifts Trump-era ban on publication of Guantánamo prisoner art

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The Department of Defense has lifted the Trump administration’s ban on posting artwork made by prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, in a recent policy change that allows outgoing detainees to take their work with them. with them.

Under the new policy, detainees are allowed to take “a convenient amount of their art” with them when they leave Guantanamo Bay, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Cesar H. Santiago said via email. .

He declined to define “walkable quantity”, but said the Department of Defense still considers the work “the property of the US government”.

Colonel Santiago also declined to say when the new policy was adopted.

The prison imposed the ban in late 2017, after an art exhibit in New York called “Ode to the Sea” struck a chord at the Pentagon. It featured seascapes, model ships, and other artwork by current and former Guantánamo detainees, and its website offered an email address for people “interested in purchasing artwork.” of these artists.

The Ministry of Defence, for the first time, declared the artwork the property of the government. A spokesperson said officials “were not aware of inmate artwork being sold to third parties.”

Prior to this, the prison had authorized inmate attorneys to remove their clients’ art from the US Navy base – after a security check that scanned it for secret messages with national security implications. In the case of certain models of boats made by a Yemeni, the troops went so far as to make and study an X-ray. Some detainees transferred off base had also previously been allowed to bring their artwork with them.

Defense attorneys protested the ban but never mounted an intellectual property challenge in federal court to resolve it.

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The Pentagon concession comes at an important time. Of the 34 men currently held at Guantánamo, 20 have been cleared for transfer under security arrangements. None of them have been charged with a crime. Among them are many men who spent their last years in detention painting, drawing and creating sculptures, some in art classes with an ankle chained to the ground. Some have amassed huge collections of their work.

Last year, the dispute over art caught the attention of two United Nations rapporteurs – one on human rights, the other on cultural rights – who wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to inquire about policy.

They specifically mentioned five artists in prison among the 20 whose transfer had been approved, calling them “victims” of “what appear to be disproportionate restrictions on the exercise of freedom of artistic expression”.

One is a Pakistani prisoner, Mohammed Ahmed Ghulam Rabbani, 53, whose repatriation has been approved. The other four are Yemenis who have nowhere to go because Congress is banning repatriations to their war-torn homeland, which is too unstable to safely resettle and monitor detainees.

The Biden administration has yet to respond to UN officials. But one of the rapporteurs, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, is visiting the Guantanamo detention operation this week. The topic of artwork is expected to be discussed.

The Biden administration has reinvigorated efforts to transfer exonerated detainees with security arrangements and has so far repatriated or released six men. The most recent prisoner to be released, Majid Khan, who is resettling in Belize, said the only art he brought with him was 46 pages of poetry, the release of which had been approved by the army.

The Trump administration released only one man, Ahmed Haza al-Darbi, and the the army sent his works with him when he was transferred to a Saudi prison in 2018. Former chief prosecutor of the military commissions, Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins got the exception for Mr. Darbi’s art because he had served as a cooperating witness against other defendants in the war tribunal.

For years before the ban, the prison featured inmate artwork during tours of Guantánamo detention facilities by journalists and other delegations. Journalists were encouraged to photograph it. Once the ban is pronounced, the journalists were no longer allowed to see the work.