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'Non-lethal round' fired at Gitmo detainees in soccer field incident, US military confirms

John Moore / Getty Images file

Camp Delta in the Guantanamo Bay detention center in 2010.

U.S. military officials confirmed Thursday that a guard at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay last January fired a "non-lethal round" to disperse detainees after one of them sought to climb a fence and others threw rocks at the guard tower.

No one was injured during the incident, which appears to be the first shooting involving rubber bullets in the 11-year history of the Guantanamo facility. Nonetheless, it has fueled claims by defense lawyers – denied by camp officials – that the  detainees have been engaged for weeks in widespread protests, including hunger strikes and refusing to sleep in their cells.

The conflicting claims about conditions come as the detention facility in Cuba – which began under President George Bush in 2002 – is once again in the spotlight. Congressional Republicans, led by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, on Thursday sharply criticized the Obama administration for flying the recently captured Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden's son in law, to New York to stand trial in federal court rather than sending him to Guantanamo.

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“When it comes to people like this ... we want them to go to Gitmo to be held in military custody for interrogation purposes," Graham said in a news conference.

But Obama administration officials say they have ruled out sending any more terror suspects to Guantanamo because it would undercut their intention to shut down the facility. On his first full day in office in January 2009, President Barack Obama vowed to close Guantanamo, but he has been blocked from doing so by Congress, leaving most of the 166 detainees remaining there in perpetual limbo – even though at least 55 of them have been publicly cleared for release by an administration task force consisting of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The shooting incident, first reported by the Miami Herald, occurred on the grounds of a new $744,000 soccer and recreation field that was opened last year and touted by base officials as an example of new and more permissive conditions at the facility. The new soccer field was featured in an NBC News report on Guantanamo last June.

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Navy Capt. Robert Durand, chief public affairs spokesman at Guantanamo, told NBC News in an email that on the afternoon of Jan. 2, the incident occurred "after a detainee attempted to climb the fence" in the new recreation field and a "small crowd of detainees began throwing rocks at the guard tower."

"After repeated warnings were ignored, the guard force was forced to employ appropriate crowd-dispersal measures, in accordance with standard operating procedures," Durand wrote.

In response to follow-up questions, Durand said that the measures involved the shooting of a "non-lethal round" consisting of "several small rubber balls with limited ability to penetrate skin and little ability to cause injury." One of these balls "hit a detainee," he added. (During a May 2006 disturbance at Guantanamo, guards fired pepper spray at detainees, Durand said.) 

Information only began to emerge in recent weeks when some of the detainees began informing their lawyers – whose communications with their clients are tightly regulated. One detainee, Bashir al-Marwalah, wrote his New York lawyers in a letter received  Feb. 22: "We are in danger. One of the soldiers fired on one of the brothers a month ago. Before that, they send the emergency forces with M-16 weapons into one of the brothers' cell blocks."

The letter, a copy and translation of which was obtained by NBC News,  further alleged that a copy of the Quran had been "desecrated" during a search the day before and that guards were going from "cell block to cell block" and taking away detainee possessions.

"Now they want to return us to the darkest days under Bush. They said this to us. Please do something." the letter stated. It then concluded: "We asked that this be announced to the media so that people know what the Obama administration is doing to prisoners now. All the brothers are now on a hunger strike in protest of mistreatment and the desecration of the Quran."

The claims in the letter have been echoed in the last few days by lawyers for other detainees , who have said their clients have told them about large-scale  hunger strikes – with some detainees "losing consciousness" and "coughing up blood."  The claims of widespread hunger strikes have been vigorously denied by Guantanamo officials, who say there are now seven who are doing so – about the same number as have for the past year. 

Pardiss Kebriaei, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said she spoke to one of her clients, Ghaleb Al-Bihani, also a Yemeni, by phone this week and he said he has refused food for a month.  "He's dropped 23 pounds, he’s a diabetic, and medical staff have told him his life is in danger," Kebriaei said. 

Kebriaei said her client told her that there is now a "mass hunger strike" in Camp 6 – the largest and most permissive of the camps at Guantanamo – and that all but two detainees are participating. In addition, she said,  the detainees are protesting in other ways – by refusing to sleep in their cells, instead taking their mats outside and sleeping there. The trigger for the protests appears to be new restrictions and more comprehensive searches of cell blocks  imposed by the new camp commander, Rear Adm. John Smith.

Durand, the Guantanamo spokesman, disputed the lawyers' claims across the board.

“In broad terms, what we are seeing is a coordinated effort by detainees and their attorneys to take routine camp events and create a false picture of conditions," he wrote in an email. "Every day, to some degree, there are a few hunger strikers, a few detainees who assault or threaten guards. To describe the current conditions in the camp as 'deteriorating' is patently false."

He added: "Detainees, their attorneys, family members and sympathetic organizations routinely attempt to gain sympathy for detainees in the media by initiating and spreading falsehoods regarding conditions of detention, allegations of abuse by guards, denial of medical treatment, abuse of the Quran and reports of mass unrest or hunger striking. These tactics have been employed off and on since Joint Task Force Guantanamo opened in 2002."

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