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Controversy Over Guantanamo Prisoner's Art

Jan 1, 2018
Originally published on January 3, 2018 6:08 am

An art show at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice of work done by terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has led to a Pentagon crackdown. One inmate's lawyers say their client's artwork is evidence of torture.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

For years, prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay naval base have had a creative outlet - art. Three dozen pieces of that artwork are now on display at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, but the Pentagon is not on board with the exhibit. NPR's David Welna reports, the show has prompted the Defense Department to clamp down on inmate art.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The dispute over the Guantanamo artwork really comes down to one question. Who owns it? For Commander Anne Leanos, the prison camp's spokeswoman, the answer is simple.

ANNE LEANOS: Items produced by detainees during their detention here do remain the property of the Department of Defense.

ALKA PRADHAN: We don't consider the government to own that.

WELNA: That's Alka Pradhan. She's the human rights expert on the legal team representing Ammar al-Baluchi. His uncle is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Al-Baluchi is accused of acting as a courier for Osama bin Laden and faces a possible death sentence. A Senate investigation found he'd been brutally interrogated in a secret CIA prison before arriving in Guantanamo. Pradhan says a work by al-Baluchi being shown in New York, a vortex of colored dots titled "Vertigo In Guantanamo" (ph), captures that ordeal.

PRADHAN: It's evidence of his torture and the effects of his torture - the continuing effects of his torture 14 years after he was kidnapped.

WELNA: Al-Baluchi's CIA interrogation was dramatized in the movie "Zero Dark Thirty."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

JASON CLARKE: (As Dan) Where was the last time you saw bin Laden, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, gurgling).

CLARKE: (As Dan) You know, when you lie to me, I hurt you.

WELNA: Al-Baluchi and 13 others who also underwent CIA interrogations are called high-value detainees. They're kept at a secret location separate from Guantanamo's 26 other prisoners. Those captives are all free to attend art classes that have been offered since late in the Bush administration. Pradhan says her client has to work alone on his artwork.

PRADHAN: He tells us that he uses it as a form of therapy and that it may be a very important mitigation tool if and when we get to trial.

WELNA: Under the Pentagon's new guidelines, though, it's not clear how much of his artwork al-Baluchi will be allowed to keep. Again, prison camp spokeswoman Leanos...

LEANOS: Detainees are authorized to keep a limited amount of artwork in their cell areas subject to our security protocols.

WELNA: And that artwork that exceeds those limits, does that remain in the possession of military authorities in Guantanamo, or where does it go?

LEANOS: So in terms of where they're stored, that would be considered a security protocol, and we don't discuss specific security protocols.

WELNA: Translation - the Pentagon won't say where it keeps the artwork or what it will do with it. What's more, Leanos says the Pentagon's decided no more artwork will leave the prison camp.

LEANOS: After becoming aware that some detainee-produced items - so artwork is considered a detainee-produced item - were being offered for sale, the DOD established policy which prohibits transfer of detainee-produced items from our detention facility.

WELNA: Lawyer Pradhan says the Pentagon's got it wrong. There are no price tags on the artwork being shown.

PRADHAN: It has never been for sale. Ammar's work is not for sale. It will not be for sale. It is for exhibition, and we hope to show more of it. We have a great deal of it.

WELNA: At least 500 additional pieces of artwork produced in Guantanamo are already in the U.S. That's according to Erin Thompson - she's a professor of art and crime at John Jay College - who's one of the show's co-curators. These works, she says, have more than just artistic value.

ERIN THOMPSON: All of these artworks serves to remind us as viewers that Guantanamo is still open, and whether we think that they're innocent and need to be released or they're guilty and need to be convicted, it's still a problem.

WELNA: And even though the Pentagon claims ownership of what it calls detainee-produced items, spokeswoman Leanos says there is no intention to reclaim any of the artwork that's already left the island. What's gone is gone. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST AND SPANKY'S "4 MOMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.