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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Guantanamo artist’s right to create comes to court

Alleged 9/11 plotter Ammar Al Baluchi’s attorneys said his rights to make art have been violated

Artwork made by detainees of the Guantanamo Bay camp on show at an exhibit at at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, including a piece, far left, by Ammar Al Baluchi. AP
Artwork made by detainees of the Guantanamo Bay camp on show at an exhibit at at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, including a piece, far left, by Ammar Al Baluchi. AP

A man accused of helping to plan the September 11 attacks wants to be able to publicly distribute art he makes in his cell at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

Ammar Al Baluchi’s attorneys sent a motion to a military commission on Wednesday, saying that the United States Department of Defence has violated his rights by making it more difficult for him to draw and paint and by blocking him from giving his artwork to his attorneys.

The Department of Defence put new restrictions on materials created by Al Baluchi, a nephew of suspected September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, after some of his artworks were given to curators putting together a New York exhibition of detainee art last year. Two of the pieces were part of the show, which ran in the final months of last year.

Lawyer Alka Pradhan said the restrictions should be lifted because Al Baluchi, who is awaiting a trial by a military tribunal, gets a therapeutic benefit from being able to create and share his work and because it could help him appear more human to the officials who may decide whether he is put to death.

“The fact of the matter is you cannot discount every possible method of humanising these men to the public when they have been so dehumanised by the government for so long,” Mr Pradhan said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy commander Sarah Higgins, said items produced by detainees at Guantanamo Bay “remain the property of the US government”. She said she couldn’t comment further on any ongoing litigation.

The idea that Al Baluchi should be able to create and display art spurred disgust and anger among some family members of those killed on September 11.

“My son doesn’t have a right to breathe. They shouldn’t have a right to draw,” said Jim Riches, a retired deputy fire chief whose firefighter son was killed at the World Trade Centre. “My son went to work, and he died that day. These are the guys that plotted to kill them. I think they forfeited their rights to draw any pictures or whatever they want to do.”

Al Baluchi is accused by US military prosecutors of being a senior member of Al Qaeda directly involved in sending several of the September 11 aircraft hijackers to the US, including financing their trips. The defence says there is no proof he made those transactions or knew the hijackers intended to attack the US.

Al Baluchi was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and was extensively interrogated by the CIA before his transfer to Guantanamo Bay. His trial has yet to be scheduled.

One of Al Baluchi’s art pieces is Vertigo at Guantanamo, a series of multicoloured dots in a pattern that evokes a tornado. Mr Pradhan said it is a reference to the vertigo that Al Baluchi experiences as a result of CIA torture.

The Vertigo piece was among several from Guantanamo Bay detainees that were shown at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the end of last year in an exhibit called Ode to the Sea.

In the motion, Al Baluchi’s attorneys say that after the exhibition gained media attention, the Department of Defence said it would no longer allow objects made by the Guantanamo Bay detainees to leave the island. The attorneys also said Al Baluchi’s art supplies have been confiscated at least once.

“This was the first time in a very long time that the public has gotten a window about how these men are living in Guantanamo,” Mr Pradhan said.

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