Camp is prison-like, Haitians charge Tensions high at Guantanamo compound

March 22, 1993|By Newsday

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- As a federal judge in Brooklyn ponders whether to order their release, Haitian refugees complain that a new camp commander has herded them into a tiny compound that is being run like a prison.

The 250 Haitians are legally eligible to seek asylum in the United States, but have not been allowed to enter because they or their relatives tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

Some relatives not infected by HIV have chosen to leave for the United States. As their conditions worsen or as they develop diseases that cannot be treated at Guantanamo, those who are infected are taken to medical facilities on the mainland. There were 268 Haitians at the base last month.

Soldiers and refugees say tensions are about as high as they've been since the HIV camp was established more than a year ago.

Attorneys for the Haitians attribute the problem to the get-tough policy of the new commander.

On March 13, the day after he took command, Air Force Col. Myhre Paulson ordered a surprise pre-dawn head count at the refugee camp, according to the Haitians and military officials.

Two hundred and fifty baton-wielding troops wearing riot gear and backed by guard dogs rousted the Haitians out of their sleep.

The Haitians say that after some of them were roughed up -- Colonel Paulson denies this and says some of his men were injured -- a riot broke out.

Twelve of the 47 barracks on the compound were burned down by the Haitians, 30 of whom were tossed into cells, officials say. The remaining refugees were herded into a small corner of the camp, according to the Haitians and their attorneys.

Nineteen remain incarcerated.

The refugees say the head count was aimed at harassing leaders of a hunger strike begun by the refugees two months ago, a charge that Colonel Paulson denies.

He said the early morning sweep was conducted to "regain control" of the camp. In the two previous days, he said, a dozen Haitians tried to leave the base.

After security personnel apprehended the would-be absconders, some of the soldiers were threatened with violence, he said.

"I made the decision it was time to start from the basics again and restore order," Colonel Paulson said.

He acknowledged that he later clamped down on a number of freedoms once enjoyed by the Haitians.

While the refugees could formerly roam over 30 acres of the military base, they say they are now confined to an area about the size of a football field and a half.

Last week at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, U.S. District Court Judge Sterling Johnson heard closing arguments in a case challenging AIDS immigration policy and demanding release of the Haitians. Attorneys for the Haitians said they expect Judge Johnson to issue preliminary rulings soon.

On Saturday, Colonel Paulson refused to let a group of journalists and private attorneys enter the area where the Haitians are living, despite pleas from representatives of the refugees.

Instead, Colonel Paulson allowed only the Rev. Jesse Jackson to go to Camp Bulkeley, where the Haitians reside.

After a brief visit to Camp Bulkeley, Mr. Jackson was permitted to bring 34 of the Haitians back to the hangar to talk with journalists.

"It is clearly a camp now, not for rescue, but for repression," Mr. Jackson said upon his return. "It is clear the Haitians there are living under martial law."

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