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Honor thy Koran
U.S. NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- The senior military commander of the prison camp here yesterday voiced "frustration" that journalists and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International unfairly portray the military's handling of terror suspects.
"There is occasionally a sense of frustration," said Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood. The challenge, he said, comes not from questions asked by reporters, but rather that the military's "openness and willingness" to work with the press is often dismissed by "reporters that have not bothered to come here and look for themselves."
Gen. Hood said every organization that has shown an interest in coming to the facility in the past two years has been allowed to visit.
Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have sent correspondents before, and Army Col. Brad Blackner, the chief public affairs officer at Guantanamo, said military officials recently invited Al Arabiya to make a return visit in the near future.
But he and Gen. Hood said there is not a coordinated effort to specifically attract Arab journalists to report on the prison and its efforts to respect the religion and culture of the detainees.
"We want them to come," said Col. Blackner, although he added, "We didn't want it to look like, 'Let's reach out to the Arab community' " exclusively.
The general's remarks come amid several weeks of political fireworks in Washington and in the Muslim world, sparked by a heavily critical Amnesty International report and a since-retracted Newsweek magazine article about a prison guard flushing a Koran down a toilet.
Gen. Hood said the results of an exhaustive Defense Department probe into the Koran-abuse accusations will be released in the coming days. He previously has said that although there was no toilet-flushing incident, the probe uncovered five other occurrences involving the "mishandling of the Koran" by prison guards.
He refused to give details about the incidents yesterday, saying only that during the past two years, "there have not been significant complaints from detainees about the handling of the Koran."
A photographer and reporter from The Times who spoke with military officials inside Camp Delta, the main prison complex where about 550 mainly Muslim men are being held, were shown a green hardcover copy of the Koran, which officials said is offered to the detainees in 13 languages, including Arabic and Pashtu.
Gen. Hood, meanwhile, said he "was terribly disappointed" by a highly critical report issued last week by Amnesty International, which called the prison camp "the gulag of our time" -- a comparison to the Russian government's enslavement of millions of men and women into work camps during the early 20th century.
President Bush this week called the report "an absurd allegation." He added that the Amnesty report was unreliable because it was based on the word of released Guantanamo detainees "who hate America, people that had been trained ... not to tell the truth."
The leader of Amnesty International USA contributed the maximum $2,000 to Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign, Federal Election Commission records show. William F. Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty USA, this week dismissed the White House's criticism, saying officials are willing to use the group's reports when it pleases them, as the administration did in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Reporters and human rights groups have been increasingly critical of activities at Guantanamo since last year, when news emerged of the prisoner abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In that scandal, dozens of graphic photographs were circulated, including one of a naked Iraqi prisoner being led on a dog leash by a female U.S. soldier.
"Very obviously in the aftermath of what we saw at Abu Ghraib, there's a great deal of skepticism both around the world and some at home about what went on at Guantanamo and what has happened at other detention centers," Gen. Hood said. "I think the only way to answer that skepticism is to show people what we're doing."
Despite the attempts to improve relations with the press, reporters who visit are often frustrated by lengthy ground rules that they are required to sign and heavy restrictions on photographing or reporting the names of most of the people working in the prison. Details about the detainees, such as accusations against them, also are scant.
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