Former Guantanamo prisoners fight to keep their artwork

A painting by Guantanamo inmate Sabri Al-Qurashi shows the Statue of Liberty in front of razor-wire fencing at the notorious prison. Photo courtesy of Sabri Al-Qurashi via Monsoor Adayfi
1 of 7 | A painting by Guantanamo inmate Sabri Al-Qurashi shows the Statue of Liberty in front of razor-wire fencing at the notorious prison. Photo courtesy of Sabri Al-Qurashi via Monsoor Adayfi

Feb. 20 (UPI) -- A former Guantanamo Bay detention facility prisoner who once made art by scratching pictures into Styrofoam cups with a plastic spoon has been pushing the U.S. Defense Department to allow the release of all artwork made by former inmates at the notorious camp.

Monsoor Adayfi, speaking from Serbia with UPI, said last week that the Defense Department needs to go further in explaining its policies on the release of prisoner artwork.


The Pentagon has quietly lifted a ban on the release of art made by Guantanamo prisoners that had been imposed by former President Donald Trump's administration, but officials told UPI that the Defense Department continues to maintain that any art created there is the property of the U.S. government.

Powdered tea to paint

Under former President George W. Bush's administration, the United States began to detain hundreds of people suspected of having ties to terrorist groups after the 9/11 terror attacks. The chosen site was Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.


Prisoners were not allowed to make art from 2002 until 2010, when administrators at the detention facility under former President Barack Obama granted them access to an art class as part of negotiations with the inmates. Lawyers for the prisoners later were allowed to take the art from the base.

"We used Styrofoam cups, toilet paper, powdered tea. We could get punished and confiscated and it could be used as incriminating evidence against us," Adayfi said, speaking of the Bush-era policy.

"So, then we started like singing, dancing, poetry. We had one night where prisoners would sing and we would get punished for that."

Adayfi said that any prisoners caught making art could face solitary confinement for up to a month and their art would be confiscated. "Prisoners hid their art and protected it like it was their child born from the ordeal at Guantanamo," he said.

"If you did a drawing on a cup, you wouldn't get a cup with your meals," Adayfi said. "Sometimes, we used a Styrofoam cup to scratch with spoons. And they took the spoons and forks from us."

Adayfi said prisoners were allowed to have pens and paper to write letters home to their families, but the letters would be screened for even small sketches.


"If you draw a heart or a tree, the letter would not leave Guantanamo," he said. "We asked for art. They said, 'You guys are terrorists. You don't know how to paint.'"

Hand chained to floor

When prisoners were allowed to take classes under the Obama administration, paintings they created were made with one hand chained to the floor, Adayfi said. Prisoners were also forbidden from painting the faces of any guards or anything from the camp.

Adayfi said the prisoners then petitioned to let their art be released through their lawyers, a process that could take up to a year.

"Every painting takes weeks to a year to finish painting. Even when you finish with the art painting, you don't know if they're going to allow it or destroy it," Adayfi said.

Adayfi said the art teacher hired by Guantanamo officials would first check the art before it would pass through more levels and eventually reach the Joint Detention Group, where it would be stamped for approval.

"After that, even if your painting gets approved, that doesn't mean you can have it. It can get confiscated at any moment," Adayfi said.

He recalled one instance in 2013 when all the art made at the detention facility was confiscated and destroyed by camp administration, and the art class was ended.


"They would step on it and put it in trash bags and throw it away. Most of it was destroyed completely," Adayfi said, adding that "prisoners cried and it was like killing their children."

"Art belongs to the prisoners, but also belongs to all of humanity because only the tyranny of Nazis and dictators destroy art."

Limited supplies

Art classes resumed again in 2014, but with limited supplies. The Trump administration instituted the policy banning the release of the art in 2017 after former prisoner artwork was shown in an exhibit in New York City. It was organized by Adayfi, who was released to Serbia the previous year.

"In 2017, we organized an art exhibition in New York at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and that hit a nerve," Adayfi said. "Since 2017, the Trump administration banned art in Guantanamo, and after that, they ended the art teacher's contract."

He noted that even the government started a gallery at Guantanamo for prisoners in 2010 that was shut down in 2017.

Adayfi, who said he is banned from ever returning to the United States after he was released to Serbia against his will, was not able to visit the New York exhibit he helped organize.


Defense Department ownership

César Santiago, a spokesman for the Defense Department, confirmed to UPI that the Pentagon updated its policy on the release of art made by Guantanamo prisoners "earlier this year."

Current and former prisoners at the Defense Department's detention facility signed an open letter to President Joe Biden's administration, urging him to lift the ban last year.

Santiago, however, told UPI that the policy update did not come as the result of such requests and pushed back on the notion that the updated policy constituted a reversal.

"The policy was not reversed," Santiago said. "DoD policies are reviewed on a periodic basis to determine their continued applicability and if any changes are necessary."

Santiago said the policy was updated to allow prisoners to take a "practical quantity" of their art with them upon their release from Guantanamo.

"The practicable quantity is determined on a case-by-case basis based on the circumstances of the transfer, such as mode of transportation, destination and the negotiated conditions of the receiving government," Santiago said.

"All artwork released with a detainee will undergo a security screening prior to release."

It was not immediately clear what happens to any artwork that former prisoners are not able to take with them upon their release.


Government property

"Under longstanding DoD policy, Guantanamo Bay detainee artwork is considered the property of the U.S. government," Santiago said.

Santiago did not answer questions seeking any relevant federal statues or written directives from the Pentagon on the policy.

He also did not answer whether this means that former prisoners lose the copyright to their artwork or if their artwork is considered in the public domain as the property of the U.S. government.

Adayfi disputed Santiago's statements that only a "practical" amount of art could be released to the inmates and that the U.S. government maintains ownership of such art.

"Some of the prisoners have hundreds and hundreds of paintings. What rights [does the government] have to take even a single painting?" Adayfi asked. "If you have 100 paintings and are only allowed to take 99, why do they keep that one painting?"

Adayfi described the dispute as being only "partially resolved" and expressed worry about how the art release is going to be handled by Biden officials.

"If it's government property, how are they going to treat it? Are they going to destroy it? What is the policy for the art taken by the government? What happened to it?" Adayfi asked.


Adayfi also questioned the legality of arbitrarily allowing prisoners to take the art with them at all if it's government property because it's illegal to take property owned by the government.

"They can tell us how much they spent on each piece of paper and we are able to pay for it. I think it's stealing when someone spent weeks or months on painting and they say it's their property. This is stealing."

Adayfi, who said most of the art supplies were provided to inmates by their lawyers, likened the giving of any art supplies to prisoners by camp administrators to giving them food.

"When a government gives a prisoner a supply, it is for the prisoner to use. If you give a prisoner food, the food is no longer the property of the U.S. government," he said.

Part of their lives

"If you imprison people for over two decades, you destroy their lives and torture them over and over again and you come to ask for a piece of paper, what is your right? Those paintings are part of their life, part of who they are."

Adayfi said he believes the United States has taken issue with the art by Guantanamo prisoners because "the government doesn't want anything that unites prisoners."


"They don't want the people to believe we're humans, believe that we're innocent, believe that we've done nothing, because this is the culture that the government nurtured," he said.

"I challenge the government to show one painting that showed violence or terrorism or anything."

Adayfi was among the eight former Guantanamo prisoners signed the open letter last year urging for a change in the policy. They included Sabri Al-Qurashi, Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Moazzam Begg, Lakhdar Boumedien, Djamel Ameziane, Sami al-Haj and Ahemd Erachidi.

"Torture, hunger strikes, and isolation brought us closer to death and defined our imprisonment," the letter reads. "The longer we stayed, the more we lost our sanity and ourselves."

Adayfi added that he has continued to communicate with Guantanamo prisoners who have instructed him to "tell the free world I need my art there."

"If I can't have my art," Adayfi recounted one inmate saying, "I'm not leaving."

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