U.S. NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Army “block guards” were making their daily walk through the stifling heat of the cellblocks inside the barbed wired camp here in late May.
But after a guard discovered a dangerously sharp object hidden in the empty cell of a detainee, a violent confrontation ensued, illustrating military officials’ contention that criticisms from human rights groups only tell part of the story.
According to two Army prison guards, one 22 years old and the other 28, the prisoner was temporarily in another part of the prison for a bath when the jagged, rectangular piece of metal, three to four inches long was found and removed.
But the two guards, who spoke in a rare interview with The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity, said an altercation then followed in which the detainee tried to gouge out one of the guards’ eyes.
After first allowing the detainee to return from his shower to the cell, a five-man team of guards then began a carefully choreographed “cell extraction” to move him to another cell, where he would not be able to do further damage.
“He was extremely aggressive from the moment we went in,” said the 28-year-old guard, whose job it was to “push the detainee back” as another guard quickly handcuffed the prisoner.
Before the cuffs could go on though, things went wrong and the detainee forced his hands up under the first guard’s plexiglass face mask and began digging for the eyeball.
“He tried to insert one finger into my eye socket, then he transitioned into a fishhook maneuver,” the guard said. “He got his finger into my mouth and was trying to rip my cheek off.” After another moment, the detainee’s hands were forced down and into the cuffs.
The entire incident was videotaped, as are all cell-extraction procedures under the tight protocol with which military officials have been running the Guantanamo prison amid scrutiny and harsh criticism from human rights advocates.
Senior officials here, several of whom take ongoing criticism of their performance at the prison personally, eagerly described the incident as an example of “the other side of the story” about Guantanamo, which they say deserves a closer look.
“It’s an extreme slap in the face to me frankly that the American public is being led to believe that we’re abusing, or mistreating detainees,” said Col. Michael Bumgarner, the senior officer working inside the prison camp, which holds 585 enemy combatants held on suspicion of working for the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Human rights groups aggressively criticize the camp, where most of the detainees have been held more than three years without ever being told the “classified” charges against them. Most recently, Amnesty International described Guantanamo as “the gulag of our time.”
A classified report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, a neutral organization with access to military prisons worldwide, has described abusive interrogation techniques used on the detainees. In March, the Massachusetts-based group Physicians for Human Rights, cited “systematic psychological torture” of detainees.
Last week, the Pentagon also acknowledged several incidents of Koran mishandling, although most were inadvertent and all were punished.
The military is spending about $2.8 million to construct a psychiatric ward for mentally ill detainees.
Buildings being constructed according to state-of-the-art standards for federal prisons will replace the existing outdoor camp. One with 100 beds opened last year, and construction on another with 220 beds is expected to start soon.
The psychiatric facility is needed because about 4 percent of the detainees are on psychotropic medications for illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to manic depression, said Navy Capt. Steve Edmonson, the head doctor for detainees.
“We have an ethical responsibility to provide treatment they need regardless of what they’ve done or what they’re accused of,” he said, denying the new psychiatric ward was a response to criticism by human rights groups.
Military officials said about the late-May incident that, aside from deep scratches and bruises, neither the detainee nor any of the prison guards were seriously injured. The sharp object turned out to be a chunk of steel broken from the wire-mesh wall dividing cells in the camp.
Officials refused to give more details about the detainee, such as where he is from or why he is being held. Col. Bumgarner claimed that the detainee was “a guy who’s trained in terrorism combat.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Mendez, the senior enlisted man inside the camp, said the majority of the time guards and detainees get along, and that it is “a small amount” of detainees who are consistently aggressive.
One of the two guards who spoke anonymously with The Times said it was “a daily event” for he and others to have insults and threats hurled at them by a small group of angry detainees.
Col. Bumgarner said some detainees taunt guards by referring to the leader of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks in Iraq.
“‘Zarqawi kill you’ — that’s their favorite line,” he said.