Art Censorship at Guantánamo Bay


A report by Erin Thompson for the New York Times.

Moath al-Alwi’s prayer rug is stained with paint. Every day, he wakes before dawn and works for hours on an elaborate model ship made from scavenged materials — one of dozens of sculptures he has created since he was first detained at the Guantánamo Bay military prison in 2002. Mr. al-Alwi is considered a low value detainee, but is being held indefinitely. His art is his refuge.

The sails of Mr. al-Alwi’s ships are made from scraps of old T-shirts. A bottle-cap wheel steers a rudder made with pieces of a shampoo bottle, turned with delicate cables of dental floss. The only tool Mr. al-Alwi uses to make these intricate vessels is a pair of tiny, snub-nosed scissors, the kind a preschooler might use. It is all he is allowed in his cell.

Three of Mr. al-Alwi’s model ships are currently on view in an exhibit at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, along with 32 other paintings and sculptures from other prisoners or former detainees. My colleagues and I curated this exhibit after learning that many lawyers who have worked with detainees have file cabinets stuffed full of prisoners’ art. In the atmosphere of surveillance and control that is Guantánamo, these artworks are among the only ways detainees have to communicate with the outside world.

But last week, the Miami Herald reported a change in military policy: The art of Mr. al-Alwi and the other remaining Guantánamo prisoners is now U.S. government property. The art will no longer leave prison confines and can now legally be destroyed. Attorneys for several prisoners were told the military intends to burn the art.

Art censorship and destruction are tactics fit for terrorist regimes, not for the U.S. military. The art poses no security threat: It is screened by experts who study the material for secret messages before it leaves the camp, and no art by current prisoners can be sold. Guantánamo detainees deserve basic human rights as they await trial. Taking away ownership of their art is both incredibly petty and utterly cruel.

Through this art, you can see what Guantánamo prisoners dream of in their cells, held for years without trial or without even having charges filed against them. They paint the things they wish they could see: sunsets, meadows, cityscapes and their homes. But most of all, they paint and sculpt the sea, rendering beaches, waves and boats in delicate colors and shapes. These prisoners have heard and smelled the sea for years, since the camp is only yards away from the Caribbean. But only for four days once, when a hurricane was approaching, did the guards take down the tarps that cover the fences, and allow prisoners to see it. The sea is central to their art, a symbol of freedom.

Making art is a profoundly human urge. Viewing this art has allowed thousands of visitors at John Jay College and elsewhere a chance to see that its makers are human beings. These detainees have been treated in fundamentally dehumanizing ways, from torture to denial of fair trials, and their art reminds us that we cannot ignore their condition.

Half of the artists featured in our exhibit, like hundreds of other detainees before them, were released after showing that they pose no threat to the United States. Burning Mr. al-Alwi’s ships won’t help the war on terror. Making art is the only form of therapy available at Guantánamo. Art helps detainees keep sane, meaning that those who are guilty will one day be fit to stand trial. And restricting and burning detainee art offers another excuse for terrorist groups to encourage their followers by pointing to an irrational exercise of absolute power.

For each of his model ships, Mr. al-Alwi ruffles cardboard into feathers to create an eagle-shaped prow. As he spends months creating each one, he imagines that he himself is an eagle, soaring over the sea. Unless the military reverses its cruel new policy, he can no longer even launch his fragile creations into the world, to be free in his place.

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