A painting by Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah al Ansi, a former prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, which is on display at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Photo: John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

US Military Threatens to Destroy Artworks by Guantánamo Bay Prisoners

After a New York exhibition featuring artworks made by current and former prisoners of the Guantánamo Bay Navy base in Cuba drew the attention of the international press, the United States government has declared that the inmates no longer own their art.

The show, titled “Ode to the Sea,” opened at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan in October. On view are thirty-six paintings, drawings, and sculptures made by eight men, four who are currently imprisoned and four former detainees.

According to the Miami Herald, Air Force Major Ben Sakrisson, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed that the media coverage of the exhibition prompted the policy change, which was issued by the Department of Defense. After decades of returning art to prisoners upon their release, the government will now withhold works indefinitely and has threatened to destroy them.

Several lawyers representing the accused first reported the change when the prison failed to return works that had been submitted for inspection so that they could be approved for release. Attorney Ramzi Kassem said that one of his clients was told that if he were to leave the prison he would not be given his works and that they would be incinerated instead.

Attorney Beth Jacob’s client told her that a colonel had announced that “they could continue to make art. But the number of pieces each could have would be limited, and excess ones would be discarded.”

Since forty-one of the men being held at the prison have been accused of terrorist activities or of having ties to known terrorists, it appears that the government may have been alarmed upon learning that artworks in the exhibition were for sale. Sakrisson said that “questions remain on where the money for the sales was going.”

Erin Thompson, a John Jay College professor and cocurator of the exhibition, has launched an online petition in protest of the government’s decision to withhold and burn artworks. The document has been signed by more than 1,000 people.

“Art censorship and destruction are tactics fit for terrorist regimes, not for the US military.” Thompson wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times on Monday. “The art poses no security threat: It is screened by experts who study the material for secret messages before it leaves the camp, and no art by current prisoners can be sold. Guantánamo detainees deserve basic human rights as they await trial. Taking away ownership of their art is both incredibly petty and utterly cruel.”

Following the public outcry over the controversial announcement that the government would burn art, army colonel Lisa Garcia of the US Southern Command, which oversees the prison, said that the military may decide to archive all detainee art rather than discard it. She also told the Miami Herald that “We have no record of burning detainee artwork at any time in the past, and we are not planning to start.”

Cocurated by Thompson, Paige Laino, and Charles Shields, the exhibition will be on view until January 26, 2018.