A Huge Hunger Strike at Guantánamo

9.3.13

When is a hunger strike not a hunger strike? Apparently, when the government says it doesn’t exist.

At Guantánamo, reports first began to emerge on February 23 about a camp-wide hunger strike, of a scale not seen since before Barack Obama became President. On the “Free Fayiz and Fawzi” page on Facebook, run by lawyers for Fayiz al-Kandari and Fawzi al-Odah, the last two Kuwaitis in the prison, the following message appeared: “Information is beginning to come out about a hunger strike, the size of which has not been seen since 2008. Preliminary word is that it’s due to unprecedented searches and a new guard force.”

Fayiz al-Kandari’s team of military lawyers arrived at the prison on February 25, and the day after announced, “Fayiz has lost more than twenty pounds and lacks the ability to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time due to a camp wide hunger strike. Apparently there is a dispute over searches and the confiscations. We believe there is a desperation setting amongst the prisoners whereby GTMO is forgotten and its condemned men will never get an opportunity to prove their innocence or be free.”

On February 27, the team reported, “Today, we had a communication with the Kuwait legal team concerning Fayiz and Fawzi’s physical condition in GTMO. It is difficult meeting with a man who has not eaten in almost three weeks, but we are scheduled for an all-day session tomorrow which we are sure Fayiz will not be able to complete due his failing physical condition. Additionally, we learned that our other client Abdul Ghani, [an Afghan] who has been cleared for release since 2010, is also on a hunger strike. Eleven years without an opportunity to defend themselves.”

On February 28, the lawyers confirmed that Fayiz al-Kandari’s weight loss over the previous three and a half weeks had reached 26 pounds (12 kg), and on March 5, after meeting their client, they reported that he had said that the hunger strike “certainly hurts physically,” but he felt “very sorry for his parents whose psychological pain is ten times greater than his physical discomfort.”

While that last comment showed great concern for others, no one aware of the situation at Guantánamo would begrudge the men still held from dwelling on their own position, and concluding that a hunger strike is the only way to try and draw attention to their plight. Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, al-Kandari’s military lawyer, told FireDogLake, “there is a growing feeling here that death is the road out of GTMO.”

Death has indeed been the way out for three of the last seven prisoners to leave the prison — two who died in 2011, and one, Adnan Latif, a Yemeni, who died last September, despite having repeatedly been cleared for release from the prison.

Despair is entirely appropriate at Guantánamo for the 166 men still held, because, although 86 of them were cleared for release at least three years ago by the interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, established by President Obama (and some were cleared for release under President Bush, between 2004 and 2007), they are still held because of Congressional obstruction, and because of President Obama’s refusal to make the case that holding men cleared for release is a disgrace.

Of the 80 others, 46 were recommended for indefinite detention without charge or trial by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, and the rest were recommended for trials. Two years ago, President Obama issued an executive order formalizing the indefinite detention of those 46 men, on the basis that they were too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. This was also disgraceful, as it attempted to create the illusion that a collection of unverifiable statements produced through the use of torture, other forms of coercion, or bribery could be regarded as something approximating evidence, when that is clearly not the case.

In an effort to placate critics, the President promised periodic reviews of these men’s cases in his executive order, although two years later no reviews have taken place at all, and a review board has not even been established. These men can, therefore, reasonably be expected to regard themselves as having been abandoned by the President at least as thoroughly as the 86 men cleared for release who are still held. In addition, the majority of the rest of the prisoners — those recommended for trials — are also effectively being detained forever without any kind of review process, because, in recent months, the deeply conservative court of appeals in Washington D.C. has ruled that two of the key charges in the military commission trial system first established under President Bush to charge Guantánamo prisoners were not regarded as war crimes when the trial system was established, and has thrown out the convictions against two men tried in 2008.

On March 4, lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and others representing prisoners at Guantánamo, sent a letter to Rear Adm. John W. Smith, Jr., the Commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, adding further information about the hunger strike. They stated that, “through reports by several detainees to their counsel,” they understood that “conditions in the camps have worsened to the point that all but a few men have now gone on a hunger strike in protest,” and explained that they had been informed that “since approximately February 6, 2013, camp authorities have been confiscating detainees’ personal items, including blankets, sheets, towels, mats, razors, toothbrushes, books, family photos, religious CDs, and letters, including legal mail; and restricting their exercise, seemingly without provocation or cause.”

They added, “Moreover, we understand that Arabic interpreters employed by the prison have been searching the men’s Qur’ans in ways that constitute desecration according to their religious beliefs, and that guards have been disrespectful during prayer times. These actions, and the fact that they have affected so many men, indicate a significant departure from the way in which the rules have been formulated and implemented over the past few years.”

The lawyers also explained that, as the men’s health has deteriorated, they had received reports of their clients “coughing up blood, being hospitalized, losing consciousness, becoming weak and fatigued, and being moved to Camp V [a maximum-security block] for observation,” as well as reports of the men “feeling increased stress, fear, and despair.”

Requesting that the Commander “take immediate measures to bring an end this potentially life-threatening situation in the camps by addressing the reasons that give rise to it,” the lawyers also noted, “The practices occurring today threaten to turn back the clock to the worst moments of Guantánamo’s history, and return the prison to conditions that caused great suffering to our clients and were condemned by the public at large. If prior experience serves as any guide, the current practices risk dire consequences and will only invite outside scrutiny.”

In response, as I mentioned at the start of this article, the prison authorities claimed that there is no widespread hunger strike. As Carol Rosenberg reported for the Miami Herald, Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the prison’s public affairs officer, said that only “six of the 166 captives at the base had missed enough consecutive meals to be classified as hunger strikers,” and that five of them “were being fed through tubes.”

David Remes, who represents a number of Yemeni prisoners, disputed the authorities’ claims. He said that, on Monday, he met with a Yemeni client, Hussein Almerfedi, who “hadn’t eaten in 22 or 23 or 24 days” to protest the Qur’an searches, but “had not deteriorated sufficiently to be force fed.”

The mainstream media has begun to pick up on the story, but it remains to be seen if, in the current political climate, the situation at Guantánamo will be “condemned by the public at large,” as the lawyers stated with reference to the response to Guantánamo in George W. Bush’s second term. Experience shows us that, sadly, people no longer care sufficiently, and that President Obama shares that indifference. I hope that I am wrong, and that indignation once more becomes fashionable with reference to Guantánamo. Certainly the men who are still held deserve to have their complaints noticed, and if a hunger strike is the way to do it, then so be it.

After all, these are men whose situation ought to alarm and appal all Americans. Under President Obama, who promised to close the prison, they are, instead, held indefinitely despite being cleared for release, or they have officially been designated for indefinite detention and are then denied the reviews they were promised, or they were recommended for trials that even the most conservative judges in Washington D.C. regard as inadequate.

None of that is fair or just, and after eleven years, and with no end in sight, it is time for concrete steps to be taken to close Guantánamo once and for all.

Note: See Lewis Peake’s website, and also see this article featuring the five pictures Lewis drew based on descriptions of pictures drawn in Guantánamo in 2008 by Sami al-Haj, prior to his release, which were described to him by Sami’s lawyers at Reprieve.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

22 Responses

  1. A Huge Hunger Strike at Guantánamo | Andy Worthington | American Spring says...

    [...] http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2013/03/09/a-huge-hunger-strike-at-guantanamo/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like Loading… This entry was posted in Barack Obama, GITMO, Gitmo torture, Indefinite Detention, Media, Media Blackout, Politics, Protests, Torture, Totalitarian Regime, US, War Crimes by americanspring2011. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Waris Ali wrote:

    Thanks Andy, have been waiting for a detailed article on this

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Waris. Thanks to everyone who has liked and shared this. I’m very glad to see it receiving so much attention. The mainstream media’s general silence on the hunger strike is sadly typical, as they fail to understand that Guantanamo is not a place where their notions of objectivity have any weight. It’s a moral, legal and ethical abomination, and failing to recognize it as such – and to report it as such – only reinforces the authorities’ belief that they continue to lie about what it stands for, and who is still held.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Muna Abougoush shared this article, and wrote:

    For some, justice for all is more important than individual survival. Thanks going out to my friend Andy Worthington for this article. Those who reveal the truth, are the truth.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Nada Awwad wrote:

    Great Article. It really kills me to see such horrific violations of human rights.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Muna, for sharing – and thanks Nada for the comment.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Zilma Nunes wrote:

    Difficult situation …It’s so sad and the eyes of the world see what happens there, and they still in the same situation…

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Zilma. Yes, we are watching – and President Obama doesn’t care, sadly, or, in the most charitable interpretation, doesn’t care enough to actually do something about it.

  9. Rosemary Wooldridge says...

    How to get the situation made clear to the uninformed. So many are afraid to know about these kinds of abuses. It is easy to believe that this kind of injustice goes on in other countries, but difficult to admit that it is perpetrated in our own ‘developed’ countries. Just trying to get people who are somewhat informed to read any of the literature is a challenging task, let alone reaching out to the fearful and parochial.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Rosemary. You have touched on a significant problem – how to persuade the American people to confront and come to terms with what has been done in their name. Sadly, the mainstream media has largely failed in its responsibility to make people aware of abuses of power by its own government, and lawmakers have been particularly useless. Those of us who care will keep plugging away, because we have to, but it would be helpful to have the support of major institutions. I do wonder if there is a point at which it all becomes intolerable – at the 20th anniversary of the prison’s opening, in January 2021, for example – but it ought to be intolerable already that, of the 166 men still held, 86 have been cleared for release but are still held.

  11. Thomas says...

    Or can only be set free if they go to regimes that will lock them up again or execute them.

  12. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » A Huge Hunger Strike at Guantánamo says...

    [...] Go to Original – andyworthington.co.uk [...]

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, very well put, Thomas. We have indeed reached a point of institutional inertia that no one wants to argue that prisoners approved for transfer by a US government task force should actually be freed. We used to mock Bush when he wanted prisoners “freed” from Guantanamo only to be imprisoned again in their home countries; now that’s not even mentioned.

  14. No War No Torture » Blog Archive » Hunger Strike at Guantanamo: I Cry Out Against US torture and imprisonment without charge says...

    [...] is a link to an article on Andy Worthington’s website and here is another to an article by Lauren [...]

  15. Tom says...

    Here are some points that might be helpful to the discussion:

    All of the reputable mental health sources that I talk to say the same things. While every trauma case is different, PTSD never completely goes away. The symptoms can range from feelings of abandonment to flashbacks, body pain and more. It’s like constantly wondering can you trust anybody? Is the entire world a threat?

    I wish I could explain why from Obama on down they seem to only care about maintaining their own wealth and power. Instead, I’ll say this. While it may not be millions in victim compensation, as long as you’re telling the truth, that’s all that matters. Sadly, maybe one of these innocent detainees might die from their hunger strike. While the Western MSM might ignore them, their family won’t. Their friends won’t. Maybe everyone in their village as well. Meanwhile, Obama and the other Powers that Be responsible for this have to live with the consequences of their actions. While Obama is the most powerful person in the world, he’s still a human being like the rest of us. How he lives with this continuing is beyond me.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Very well put, Tom. It is extraordinary to see how political expediency is more important than anything else, like values, principles, morals, ethics and a respect for the law. America’s leaders have brought it to a very low place, and anyone who hoped that Obama would do something about it must be very disappointed.

  17. Franklin Lamb: US Must End Gitmo Prison Horrors + A Huge Hunger Strike at Guantánamo | Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] Andy Worthington Writer, Dandelion Salad http://www.andyworthington.co.uk March 9, [...]

  18. #breakingnews Gitmo hunger strike: Timeline | says...

    [...] that our other client Abdul Ghani, [an Afghan] who has beencleared for release since 2010, is also on a hunger strike. Eleven years without anopportunity to defend [...]

  19. Gitmo hunger strike: Timeline says...

    [...] [...]

  20. Prison-wide hunger strike still rages at Guantánamo | San Francisco Bay View says...

    [...] weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled “A Huge Hunger Strike at Guantánamo,” in which I reported the stories emerging from Guantánamo of a prison-wide hunger strike, the [...]

  21. Prison-wide hunger strike still rages at Guantánamo | Moorbey'z Blog says...

    [...] weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled “A Huge Hunger Strike at Guantánamo,” in which I reported the stories emerging from Guantánamo of a prison-wide hunger strike, the [...]

  22. Andy Worthington: Gitmo Guards Brutally Hurt Prisoners | Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] news of the strike began, I have written articles here, here, here, here and here (via Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison), and I have [...]

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