January 29, 2015 / 6:50 PM / 5 years ago

Prosecutor urges lifting Guantanamo ban on women guards touching inmate

FORT MEADE, Md. (Reuters) - A Guantanamo Bay military court order that bars female guards from touching an accused al Qaeda commander violates Pentagon sex discrimination guidelines and means inmates could set prison policies, a prosecutor argued Thursday in a hearing on the ban.

In this photo reviewed by U.S. military officials, a U.S. soldier guards a gate within the compound of the U.S. military-run prison in the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba June 26, 2006. REUTERS/Brennan Linsley/Pool

But a lawyer for inmate Abd al Hadi al Iraqi said lifting the temporary order would violate the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court rulings on religious freedom.

Iraqi, who faces war crimes charges, says being touched by female guards violates his Muslim religious beliefs. Judge Navy Captain J.K. Waits issued the order in November.

Prosecutor Army Lieutenant Colonel David Long said the Guantanamo Bay procedures were in line with Supreme Court and other rulings that gave prisons leeway in their rules.

The rulings “recognize in this area it is those that operate the prisons day after day, those that have to man them day after day, deserve a singular amount of deference,” he told Waits.

The issue arose in October when a female guard tried to shackle Iraqi for the first time since he arrived in Guantanamo Bay in 2007, and he refused. About 20 percent of the guards at Camp Seven, the secret unit for former CIA captives where Iraqi is held, are women.

Long argued that barring female guards from touching Iraqi, 54, was contrary to Defense Department policy opening up jobs, including combat assignments, to women.

The order harmed women’s careers and created division with male guards, he said. It also made it difficult for National Guard units at Guantanamo Bay to attract women volunteers and could make the facility an anomaly among U.S. prisons, he said.

Long said the order also opens to door to inmates asking for other policy changes. He said an intercepted letter to Iraqi from fellow inmate Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, about the order showed inmates’ interest in it.

In the letter, Mohammed coached Iraqi on what to say if called on to testify. He said Iraqi should say that other inmates allowed women to touch them because they saw how he was forcibly shackled by male guards when he refused, a court filing showed.

Iraqi’s lawyer, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Jasper Jr., said rescinding the order would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and to a speedy trial and against cruel and unusual punishment.

He said it should be upheld under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling last year on religious accommodation. Prison supervisors also should be able to adjust schedules to keep female guards from touching Iraqi, he said.

“The world is watching how the court rules on the pre-trial treatment of detainees” at Guantanamo, he said.

Female guards have filed a sex discrimination complaint against Waits through the Defense Department. A second judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, faces a complaint for a similar order involving Mohammed and four co-defendants.

The hearing was monitored at a media site at Fort Meade, outside Washington.

(In paragraphs 9, 11, corrects name to Iraqi from Hadi)

Reporting by Ian Simpson

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