If a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay paints a picture of a teapot or a stormy sea, does the art belong to him?
After an ocean-themed art exhibit in New York City made waves that reached the Pentagon, the answer would seem to be no.
Ode to the Sea, the exhibit at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, features 36 paintings, drawings and sculptures made by eight men who were being held at the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba. (Of those, four have been released from the prison.)
The exhibit received international news coverage after it went up last month. Now, the Pentagon is reviewing the way it handles prisoners’ art, and lawyers say they have not been able to transport detainees’ paintings out of Guantánamo Bay in recent weeks.
“My clients were told that their art would no longer be processed for release,” said Ramzi Kassem, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law whose legal clinic represents three men being held at Guantánamo Bay. “And then one of my clients was told that, even if he were ever to be released, that he would not be able to take his art with him, and that it would be incinerated.”
The 41 men still held at Guantánamo Bay have been accused of having links to terrorists or of participating in terrorist plots, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Only 10 have been charged or convicted in the military commissions system.
Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email on Sunday that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government.” He added that the Department of Defense had suspended transfers of art from the prison, pending a policy review, but did not intend to pursue art that was already released.
Asked why the policy came up for review and whether it had anything to do with the exhibit at John Jay College, Major Sakrisson said that “media reporting brought it to the attention of the Department of Defense.” He also told The Miami Herald that “questions remain on where the money for the sales was going,” apparently referring to a line on the exhibit’s website that says the detainees’ art is available for purchase.
Erin L. Thompson, a curator of the exhibit, said the only paintings for sale were the ones whose artists had been cleared and released from Guantánamo.
“The idea of trying to dispirit someone by destroying what they’ve made, even if the subject is, on its surface, innocuous, is very common in warfare,” added Ms. Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay College. She said she would be distressed if United States officials destroyed art created by their prisoners.
At Guantánamo Bay, art classes have been available for nearly a decade. The detainees were allowed to give their creations to their lawyers, often as thank you gifts or for safekeeping.
One lawyer, Beth D. Jacob, said her client showed her his paintings when they first met. “I was impressed by it, and he told me that the art teacher there had complimented him,” she said. So last year, she reached out to Ms. Thompson about putting them on display. Several other Guantánamo detainees agreed to participate, and the exhibit was unveiled last month.
It includes a piece called Vertigo at Guantánamo, a series of colorful dots in concentric circles that call to mind a gaping hole. That one was by Abd al Aziz Ali, a citizen of Pakistan who also goes by Ammar al-Baluchi and was charged with helping to orchestrate the Sept. 11 attacks.
The exhibit also includes a painting of the Statue of Liberty in front of an electric-blue sea. That work is by Ms. Jacob’s client, Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah al Ansi, a Yemeni citizen. American officials suspected him of working as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, but he was cleared by a tribunal last year and transferred to Oman in January.
Also on display are intricate models of ships, their white sails stamped with the words “APPROVED BY U.S. FORCES” to show that they were inspected by military officials on their way out of the prison. Those are by Moath Hamza Ahmed al Alwi, a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay who has been accused of associating with Al Qaeda operatives, but has not been charged with any crime.
Each piece of art was subject to a rigorous security check on the way out of Guantánamo, and the review process took weeks, said Mr. Kassem, whose legal clinic represents Mr. Alwi. Mr. Kassem added that he was never given a reason for the apparent change, and formally sought an explanation from the joint task force at Guantánamo Bay. That was denied, he said, adding that people at the Defense Department told him the decision stemmed from news coverage of an art exhibit in New York.
Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, a lawyer with Reprieve, a human rights advocacy group whose lawyers represent several detainees at Guantánamo Bay, also said news of the rule change came from clients, not from the Defense Department.
She called the decision “confusing and confused,” adding that officials at Guantánamo Bay once touted the art program — despite restrictions on what content went public. “The ban on art that made the U.S. look bad was absurd already,” she said. “But a ban of painted flower pots is just inane.”