U.S. military may archive Guantánamo prison art rather than burn it

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As a follow-up to previous post Who Owns Art from Guantánamo Bay, here is an article by Carol Rosenberg (Miami Herald) about controversy following the announcement that military officials had been planning to burn artwork made by prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Rosenberg reports:

The idea of incinerating artwork made by wartime captives at Guantánamo Bay has stirred such alarm that the U.S. military is now discussing keeping and cataloging detainee art rather than burning it.

Army Col. Lisa Garcia of the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the 41-captive prison and its 1,500-member staff, said Tuesday that Southcom is recommending to the prison that the staff archive detainee artwork rather than discard it. “We have no record of burning detainee artwork at any time in the past,” Garcia told the Miami Herald, “and we are not planning to start.”

A lawyer quoted a captive as saying that military officials at the prison in southeast Cuba announced earlier this month that artwork of detainees who leave the prison would be incinerated.

For years the prison had permitted attorneys for the captives to take their clients’ art off the U.S. Navy base — after a security screening that, among other things, sought to analyze it for secret messages. In the instance of some model ships ingeniously made by a Yemeni, troops went so far as to make and study an X-ray of it. Some of the more than 700 captives who were resettled or repatriated were allowed to take some of their artwork with them.

But an ongoing exhibit at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice featuring paintings and other works by current and former captives — Ode to the Sea — caught the attention of the Pentagon because the exhibit’s website offered an email address for people “interested in purchasing art from these artists.”

Department of Defense officials “were not previously aware that detainee artwork was being sold to third parties,” and ordered the prison to stop releasing it, Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson said. He called the artwork property of the U.S. government. He also said there was no effort underway to recover detainee art that had already left the base.

The prospect of burning art prompted comparisons of the United States to its enemies.

“Let’s see who can destroy works of art and culture faster, ISIS or @DeptofDefense at #Guantánamo,” long-serving detainee attorney J. Wells Dixon tweeted on Nov. 16, after the Miami Herald broke the news of the ban. “Next it will be burning books,” the attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights also tweeted. An online petition started by the curator of the John Jay exhibit — which as of Tuesday morning had 878 signatures — declared: “Burning art is something done by fascist and terrorist regimes — but not by the American people.”

Attorney Ramzi Kassem, whose clients include some of the prison’s most prolific artists, described the idea of archiving rather than destroying the works of art as a cynical move. ​ “They’re still going to redact the art out of existence. They’re just not going to burn it because that looks bad,” he told the Herald. “But if no one gets to see the art, they might as well be incinerating it,” he added. “Guantánamo has always been about dehumanizing its prisoners and erasing them. This is only the latest example.”

In contrast, Federal Bureau of Prisons policy lets inmates mail “arts and hobbycraft” to family, give it to certain visitors and sometimes display it in public spaces, if it meets the warden’s standard of taste. [. . .]

[Detail from original photo: “The Guantánamo prison had this painting by Pakistani “forever prisoner” Mohammed Ahmed Rabbani on the wall on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, as part of their display of 2016 art projects done by captives. The photo was approved for release by the U.S. military at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.”]

For full article, photos and related video, see http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/guantanamo/article186891663.html

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