Guantanamo judge hears arguments on no-touch order for female guards

FORT MEADE, Md. (Reuters) - A former Guantanamo Bay commander at a section of the U.S. prison that houses five alleged Sept. 11 conspirators defended in military court on Tuesday the right to use female guards amid objections that contact with the women violates their religion.

A U.S. Marine guard tower overlooks the Northeast gate leading into Cuba territory at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, March 8, 2013. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Judge Army Colonel James Pohl issued a temporary order barring female guards from touching or transporting prisoners in January. The order followed complaints from the five suspects that Muslim tradition forbade physical contact with women outside their immediate families.

Testifying under a pseudonym, a former commander of Camp Seven, the secret part of the prison in Cuba where the United States keeps former Central Intelligence Agency captives, said it was tough to run the section without female guards.

According to operational guidelines at Guantanamo Bay, “close contact with unrelated females is culturally inappropriate, but you did it anyway,” said David Nevin, a lawyer for alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

“Because there was an operational need,” replied the female commander, who oversaw Camp Seven in 2014.

“There is no reason that the detainee can ask for different guards or different escort teams,” she said via streaming video. “That opens the door for other accommodations based on individual feelings.”

Pohl could rule to revise the order this week.

Mohammed and the four other suspects are charged with conspiring with militants who slammed hijacked airliners into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. Almost 3,000 people died in the attacks.

The issue over touching arose in October 2014 when a female guard tried to shackle a Guantanamo Bay inmate, Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, who is accused of leading attacks in Afghanistan. He refused to be touched and male soldiers shackled him and moved him back to his cell.

A different Camp Seven commander testified earlier this year that no-touch orders had hurt the morale of female guards, who felt they were being excluded from assignments.

In October, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter described the order as “outrageous” during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

The hearing was monitored by closed circuit television from a media center at Fort Meade, outside Washington.

Editing by Alan Crosby