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The case of the Guantánamo detainee who wanted to see the sun

Yasin Ismail's case highlights the difficulty of verifying conditions of confinement.

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Seeing the sun in the sky and feeling the warmth on your face is not a particularly momentous event – unless you haven't seen the sun for a long time.

Last month, on Jan. 7, Guantánamo detainee No. 522 wanted to feel the sun on his face. He asked to be moved from his shaded exercise "pen" to a vacant adjacent pen in the open sunlight.

A guard allegedly told him: "You're not allowed to see the sun."

What happened next is a source of vigorous dispute. The detainee, Yasin Ismail of Yemen, was either the perpetrator of an assault against guards or the victim of an assault by guards – or both.

The incident is important, say lawyers for the detainees, because it highlights the oppressive, punitive character of daily interactions between guards and detainees at the controversial prison camp here.

Military officials, on the other hand, say it illustrates how savvy detainees try to manipulate the system to continue fighting the US behind bars by any means available.

But the Jan. 7 incident may be significant for a different reason: It highlights an absence of independent scrutiny of detainee treatment at the Gauntánamo detention camp and the impossibility under current circumstances of determining who is telling the truth.

On a recent tour by reporters of the Guantánamo camp, questions about the incident were dismissed by military officials with general denials. Requests to see medical records, incident reports, video tapes, and investigation documents were rejected. Officials said surveillance cameras in the exercise area are not equipped with recording devices and thus cannot be reviewed to verify the guards' account or establish Mr. Ismail as a liar or as a bonafide victim.

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