Guantanamo Bay detainee has right to make, show art, lawyer argues
NEW YORK — A man accused of helping to plan the Sept. 11 attacks wants to be able to publicly distribute art he makes in his cell at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
Ammar al Baluchi's attorneys sent a motion to a military commission Wednesday, saying the Department of Defense 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 Defense put new restrictions on materials created by al Baluchi, a nephew of suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, after some of his artworks were given to curators putting together a New York City exhibition of detainee art last year. Two of the pieces were part of the show, which ran in the final months of 2017.
Lawyer Alka Pradhan said the restrictions should be lifted because al Baluchi, who's awaiting a trial before 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 humanizing these men to the public when they have been so dehumanized by the government for so long,” Pradhan said.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, said items produced by detainees at Guantanamo Bay “remain the property of the U.S. 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 Sept. 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 Center. “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 U.S. military prosecutors of being a senior member of al-Qaida directly involved in sending several of the Sept. 11 airplane hijackers to the U.S., including financing their trips. The defense says there's no proof he made those transactions or knew the hijackers intended to attack the United States.
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 multicolored dots in a pattern that evokes a tornado. Pradhan said it is a reference to vertigo 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 got media attention, the Department of Defense 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,” Pradhan said.