Controversy flares at Guantanamo Bay as some inmates baulk at presence of female guards

A US soldier walking next to the razor wire-topped fence at the abandoned "Camp X-Ray" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. -- PHOTO: AFP
A US soldier walking next to the razor wire-topped fence at the abandoned "Camp X-Ray" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. -- PHOTO: AFP

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AFP) - In the recently released film Camp X-Ray, Twilight star Kristen Stewart plays a soldier assigned to Guantanamo Bay who ends up befriending one of the detainees. In reality, inmates at the United States military prison have baulked at the presence of female guards, saying it is an affront to their religious beliefs.

The issue has turned into a headache for the US military authorities, who bristle at the idea of instituting any gender restrictions on staff at the facility on a naval base in south-eastern Cuba.

Earlier this month, a military judge ignited the dispute when he granted an emergency order to temporarily halt the use of female guards in handling detainee Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi. Iraqi, who stands accused of having served as a senior Al-Qaeda military commander alongside Osama bin Laden, has refused to be shackled by female guards when he is taken to pre-trial hearings, such as those taking place this week.

Lawyers for the 53-year-old, who is an Iraqi national, have argued that Islam forbids such physical contact between a man and a woman who is neither his wife nor a relative. "This commission has the duty of being mindful of religious and cultural differences within the parameters of its authority and responsibilities, while at the same time respecting the need of the detention facility commander to allocate resources and preserve security," wrote the judge, Navy Captain J. K. Waits.

But the commander of operations at Guantanamo, Rear-Admiral Kyle Cozad, has voiced his opposition to any gender distinctions dictated by prisoners at the US facility in southern Cuba.

"We've had female guards and female medics since the first airplane landed from Afghanistan in January 2002," Rear-Adm Cozad said in an interview at his headquarters.

"Having females is part of our population. It's not a new thing. It's part of our history," he said.

Rear-Adm Cozad noted that women represent about 13 per cent to 14 per cent of the force at the prison - a level comparable to that seen Pentagon-wide.

"If I was to pull a female guard, basically I would be discriminating against a member of my force who is qualified to do the task," he said.

At Guantanamo, women deployed at the prison wear the same uniforms and boots as their male counterparts. They are forbidden from wearing makeup or jewelry.

The only visible difference? Some of them wear their hair in tightly fastened buns, only barely noticeable at the napes of their necks.

Their mission is not an easy one.

A young nurse in charge of force-feeding hunger strikers says some of them refuse to allow her to strap them down or to place a feeding tube down their nose - because of her gender.

"Spitting has occurred, yes," said the soldier, only identified as "Beeds" on her uniform so the prisoners never learn her real name.

"But I was still able to do my job."

A senior medical officer by her side, also a woman, said it was "very rare" for prisoners to refuse care or nourishment from female staff.

"We do try to accommodate if there's an objection," said the officer, who arrived at Guantanamo eight months ago.

"I think there's an understanding of each other's role: they need to protest, we need to accomplish our mission and in most cases, that's exactly how it proceeds."

Guantanamo's Muslim cultural adviser, known only as "Zach" for security reasons, insists the religion does not forbid being cared for or touched by women for medical reasons.

Zach, a US citizen of Jordanian descent, was hired by the Pentagon to serve as a link between the detainees and the men and women who guard them.

"Extremists - they play on the ignorance of people," he said, clearly outraged by the detainees' interpretation of the Quran.

"As long as that touch doesn't mean anything else - there's no skin touching, they wear gloves, they wear clothes - it's business," Zach added.

"The more we pay attention to their claims, the more we encourage extremism to continue."