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Detainees' Protest Wins U.S. Reversal (Post)

By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 1, 2002; Page A01

A hunger strike yesterday by almost two-thirds of the 300 al Qaeda and Taliban detainees at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, called to protest two guards' removal of a makeshift turban from a captive's head, prompted a rapid about-face by U.S. military officials, who told the inmates they could indeed wear such a headdress.
The refusal to eat, along with a 45-minute demonstration in which 150 captives at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base tossed personal items out of their pens and chanted "God is great" in unison, were the first organized acts of defiance by the detainees.

Marine Gen. Michael Lehnert, who heads the Camp X-Ray prison, told the detainees over loudspeakers late yesterday that he was reversing policy and allowing them to wrap bedsheets around their heads as turbans. Such headgear is commonly used in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The general told them they would be allowed to fashion the headdress but that we will still inspect them," said Marine Maj. Stephen Cox, a camp spokesman. "He said their religion would be respected, and we understand the sacred nature of the Koran."

The trouble started Tuesday, when a guard noticed that a detainee who was praying had wrapped a bedsheet around his head. Military police have enforced a rule since the camp opened in January that detainees may drape or fold towels over their heads but, for security reasons, may not wrap sheets around their heads. The fear is that a detainee could hide a weapon in the headgear, officials said.

The guard told the detainee repeatedly to remove it, and then an interpreter was called, and he was told the same thing repeatedly in his language. The detainee did not comply, so two military police officers entered his pen and took it off. Officials declined to identify the detainee by name or nationality.

Once word of the episode spread, dozens of captives refused to eat lunch and dinner Wednesday. Officials said 107 ate no breakfast yesterday, and 194 boycotted lunch.

Around 9:45 a.m. yesterday, about half the inmates pushed their sleeping mats, towels and other items through openings in their chain-link pens and chanted in Arabic, "God is great" and "There is no God but God," two of the key prayers in Islam. That in itself was a violation of prison rules, which prohibit inmates from raising their voices.

Camp officials were at pains last night to praise the military police officer who confronted the captive, but they said the episode was regrettable.

"He saw a security violation and did what he was trained to do," Cox said. "Was the timing unfortunate? Yes." He added that training "into the finer points of the Muslim religion" has been planned "so guards don't unknowingly cause a confrontation."

Military officials also said the underlying cause of the protest was the rising apprehension among all 300 captives about their ultimate fate, seven weeks after the first group was flown from Afghanistan.

"They want to know what's going to happen to them," said Marine Capt. Joe Kloppel, a spokesman for Camp X-Ray. "There are signs of rising tension, including conversations among detainees that are overheard and statements they've made" to U.S. personnel.

Among other things, inmates have taken to ignoring the taped calls to prayer played over camp loudspeakers. Instead, they rotate duties among themselves in leading the five-times-a-day prayers.

In his speech to them, Lehnert tried to address some of the prisoners' fundamental areas of concern. "He said he didn't know what was going to happen to them but that they would be judged fairly, at a time in the future," Cox said.

"He also said that henceforth he will talk to the population every week, to inform them of what he knows about their status."

After the speech, a smaller group of prisoners, numbering 88, refused to eat -- a sign that some of the tension had dissipated, officials said.

Some Muslims believe that turbans are required because the prophet Muhammad wore them, but their use varies by region and ethnic group.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company



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