By Luke Baker
LONDON, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has worsened sharply since President Barack Obama took office as prison guards "get their kicks in" before the camp is closed, according to a lawyer who represents detainees.
Abuses began to pick up in December after Obama was elected, human rights lawyer Ahmed Ghappour told Reuters. He cited beatings, the dislocation of limbs, spraying of pepper spray into closed cells, applying pepper spray to toilet paper and over-forcefeeding detainees who are on hunger strike.
The Pentagon said on Monday that it had received renewed reports of prisoner abuse during a recent review of conditions at Guantanamo, but had concluded that all prisoners were being kept in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
"According to my clients, there has been a ramping up in abuse since President Obama was inaugurated," said Ghappour, a British-American lawyer with Reprieve, a legal charity that represents 31 detainees at Guantanamo.
"If one was to use one’s imagination, (one) could say that these traumatised, and for lack of a better word barbaric, guards were just basically trying to get their kicks in right now for fear that they won’t be able to later," he said.
"Certainly in my experience there have been many, many more reported incidents of abuse since the inauguration," added Ghappour, who has visited Guantanamo six times since late September and based his comments on his own observations and conversations with both prisoners and guards.
He stressed the mistreatment did not appear to be directed from above, but was an initiative undertaken by frustrated U.S. army and navy jailers on the ground. It did not seem to be a reaction against the election of Obama, a Democrat who has pledged to close the prison camp within a year, but rather a realisation that there was little time remaining before the last 241 detainees, all Muslim, are released.
"It’s ‘hey, let’s have our fun while we can,’" said Ghappour, who helped secure the release this week of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident freed from Guantanamo Bay after more than four years in detention without trial or charge.
"I can’t really imagine why you would get your kicks from abusing prisoners, but certainly, having spoken to certain guards who have been injured in Iraq, who indirectly or directly blame my clients for their injuries and the trauma they have suffered, it’s not too difficult to put two and two together."
Following a Jan. 22 order from Obama, the U.S. Defense Department conducted a two-week review of conditions at Guantanamo ahead of the planned closure of the prison on Cuba.
Admiral Patrick Walsh, the review’s author, acknowledged on Monday that reports of abuse had emerged but concluded all inmates were being treated in line with the Geneva Conventions.
"We heard allegations of abuse," he said, asked if detainees had reported torture. "And what we did at that point was to go back and investigate the allegation... What we found is that there were in some cases substantiated evidence where guards had misconduct, I think that would be the best way to put it."
Walsh said his review looked at 20 allegations of abuse, 14 of which were substantiated, but he did not go into details. Generally he said the abuse ranged from "gestures, comments, disrespect" to "preemptive use of pepper spray".
Ghappour said he had spoken to army guards who, unsolicited, had described the pleasure they took in abusing prisoners, whether interrupting prayer or physical mistreatment. He said they appeared unconcerned about potential repercussions.
He also saw evidence of guards pulling identity numbers off their uniforms or switching them once they were on duty in order to make it more difficult for them to be identified.
Ghappour said he had filed two complaints of serious detainee abuse since Dec. 22 but received no response from U.S. authorities. In one case his client had his knee, shoulder and thumb dislocated by a group of guards, Ghappour said.
In one of the six main camps at Guantanamo, the lawyer said all the detainees he knew were on hunger strike and subject to force-feeding, including with laxatives that induced chronic diarrhoea while they were strapped in their feeding chairs.
"Several of my clients have had toilet paper pepper-sprayed while they have had haemorrhoids," Ghappour said.
Another area of concern was evidence that detainees were being abused on the way to meetings with their lawyers — sometimes so badly that they no longer wanted to meet with counsel for fear of the beatings they would receive, he said.
"Some detainees are convinced they are going to be locked up there forever, despite the promises to close the camp," he said. (Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen and Andrew Gray in Washington, editing by Mark Trevelyan)