U.S. News

Lawyers working at Guantanamo sue Pentagon over cancer risk

(Reuters) - Four lawyers who work at the Guantanamo Bay prison on Tuesday sued the U.S. Department of Defense, claiming it has exposed them to elevated risks of cancer and other health problems by forcing them to work in contaminated areas.

FILE PHOTO - Chain link fence and concertina wire surrounds a deserted guard tower within Joint Task Force Guantanamo's Camp Delta at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

The complaint said the U.S. Navy has not properly investigated whether environmental hazards at the Camp Justice complex were linked to nine cancer cases since its 2008 opening.

By insisting that the complex is safe despite the known presence of “carcinogenic substances” such as formaldehyde and mercury, the Navy has left lawyers with the “untenable” choice between preserving their health and defending their clients, the complaint said.

A Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department does not discuss pending litigation.

The complaint was filed in the federal court in Washington by Army Major Matthew Seeger, and civilian lawyers Cheryl Bormann, Edwin Perry and Michael Schwartz.

All represent Walid Bin Attash, a Yemeni man and suspected al Qaeda training camp leader charged with helping plot the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon outside Washington.

The lawyers are seeking an injunction requiring the Defense Department to provide accommodations that protect them from the “known and unknown risks” of living and working at Camp Justice.

The complex is on the site of a former airfield, and includes temporary housing known as Cuzcos, essentially trailers, where lawyers live and work, the complaint said.

Three of the nine cancer victims have died, including Navy Lieutenant Commander Bill Kuebler at age 44 in July 2015, the complaint added.

Defense Department officials “have the responsibility to make sure the facilities where military and civilian personnel are working are safe, but are continuing to order them to work there despite the presence of known carcinogens,” Daniel Small, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview.

While none of the plaintiffs has been diagnosed with cancer, “they have experienced lesser health symptoms,” he added.

Small said that his firm, Cohen Milstein Sellers and Toll, and Venable LLP, which also represents the plaintiffs, are not being paid for their work on the case.

Only 41 people remain incarcerated at the Guantanamo prison on the U.S. naval base in Cuba, down from 242 when Barack Obama became president.

The Democrat had tried unsuccessfully to close the prison. But his Republican successor, Donald Trump, has said he wants to keep it open, and send more prisoners there.

The case is Seeger et al v. U.S. Department of Defense et al, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, No. 17-00639.