WASHINGTON — Lawyers for Guantanamo Bay detainees urged a federal judge today to stop what they describe as new "genital searches" for detainees who want to meet with their lawyers.
The lawyers say that the searches began after detainees were told they would have to travel offsite to meet with their lawyers at another location at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, rather than at the prison there.
At a hearing in U.S. District Court today, the lawyers said some detainees are refusing to make the trip because of the new searches. According to filings by the detainees' lawyers, the searches involve touching and holding of the genital and anal areas of the detainees. The courtroom was sealed from the public and news media for the government's side of the case, because it had to do with the administration of the Guantanamo prison.
William Livingston, a lawyer for one of the detainees, called the searches "a punitive response" to the widespread hunger strike at Guantanamo.
Livingston argued that the searches aren't necessary, calling the Guantanamo prison a "sealed bubble ... This is not the Baltimore city jail," where more than two dozen people were indicted in a contraband smuggling conspiracy.
In an email, Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman, said there's a well-documented history of Guantanamo detainees possessing contraband, and that guards use the minimum force necessary to ensure the safety of the detainees and the guards.
"Searches for contraband have been in existence since the facility was opened and assertions that they are in reaction to the hunger strike simply do not withstand intellectual rigor," he added.
Breasseale wouldn't comment on whether the searches include genital areas, saying he wouldn't discuss security protocols at the prison.
Another detainee lawyer, Brent Rushforth, read from letters he received from a client, who described the new searches as "humanly degrading."
In a court filing, Rushforth called the new policy "an intentional, calculated effort by the government to cut off attorney access and thereby silence the detainees, inhibiting negative press reports on the hunger strike and the unlawful confinement and conditions that persists at Guantanamo."
Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, who presided over the hearing, did not issue a ruling from the bench. Last year, Lamberth, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, ordered the government to stop trying to restrict lawyers' access to some Guantanamo detainees whose bids to challenge their confinement had been denied or dismissed.
The new battle over the searches comes as President Barack Obama makes a renewed push to close the prison, saying in a speech last month that "history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it."