An unusual religious freedom claim is playing out in Cuba, where a U.S. military court is considering whether to lift a restraining order that prevents female guards at a prison at Guantanamo Bay from touching Muslims detained in connection with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
During a two-week pretrial session in February, lawyers for accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four of his alleged accomplices argued that when the prisoners make contact with female guards, it re-traumatizes them because they were previously tortured by CIA operatives in the presence of women. The defense team also argued that Sheik Mohammed and the others have a sincerely held religious belief that women and men should not touch unless they are related.
Prosecutors, however, rejected those claims. During the hearing, attorney Bob Swann called the defense’s arguments “lame” and, referencing the “late, great” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, said the claims were “applesauce.”
“Their fantasies are not a basis in reality,” Swann said, noting that the guards only touch prisoners’ wrists, ankles heads and shoulders. They do not make contact with any other part of the body, he said.
The closely guarded prison, which is housed at a U.S. naval base on the island, is used to detain terrorism suspects. Although President Barack Obama has said he would like to close the facility, it still houses several hundred prisoners.
In 2014, women were added to the escort details of the facility for former CIA captives at which the accused 9/11 masterminds are being held – even though the military had agreed in 2007 not to put female guards in that type of positon. For the past year, only male guards have been permitted to touch these prisoners.
U.S. Army Col. James L. Pohl, who is presiding over the case, had not yet issued a ruling as this issue went to press.