How Long Can the Government Pretend that the Massive Hunger Strike at Guantánamo Doesn’t Exist?

17.3.13

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

On March 14, 2013, 51 attorneys for prisoners at Guantánamo wrote to defense secretary Chuck Hagel to express “urgent and grave concern” about the mass hunger strike that has been taking place at the prison for the last five weeks, involving over a hundred of the 166 men still held — and to urge him “to address the underlying causes of the strike and bring it to a prompt and acceptable end.”

On March 4, some of the attorneys previously wrote to Rear Adm. John W. Smith, Jr., the Commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, and Capt. Thomas J. Welsh, the Staff Judge Advocate, reporting “information received from clients about the hunger strike and its effects on the men.” Although they requested an answer to their letter, no response was received, and in the meantime, as they explained in their letter to Chuck Hagel, “we have received additional reports from clients that the strike is ongoing and that the health of the men has continued to deteriorate in alarming and potentially irreparable ways.”

As the lawyers proceeded to explain, “we understand that the hunger strike was precipitated by widespread searches of detainees’ Qur’ans — perceived as religious desecration — as well as searches and confiscation of other personal items, including family letters and photographs, and legal mail, seemingly without provocation or cause. We also understand that these searches occurred against a background of increasingly regressive practices at the prison taking place in recent months, which our clients have described as a return to an older regime at Guantánamo that was widely identified with the mistreatment of detainees. Indeed, the conditions being reported by the men appear to be a significant departure from the way in which the prison has operated over the past several years.”

In addition, of course, the majority of the prisoners have lost hope that they will ever be released. Despite promising to close the prison on taking office over four years ago, President Obama gave in to cynical Congressional opposition to the release of prisoners, after releasing just 71 men, and also imposed his own unacceptable ban on releasing any Yemeni prisoners after a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, recruited in Yemen, tried and failed to blow up a plane on Christmas Day 2009.

Of the 166 men still held, 86 were cleared for release at least three years ago by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force — and some were previously cleared for release by President Bush, between 2004 and 2007. Two-thirds of these men are Yemenis, and, by banning their release, President Obama not only consigned them to indefinite detention on the basis of their nationality alone; he also made a mockery of the official process through which they had been approved for transfer.

In addition, 46 men were designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial, in a disgraceful executive order issued by President Obama two years ago. This was disgraceful because it saw President Obama — the man who promised to close Guantánamo — instead authorizing indefinite detention without charge or trial, on the basis that these particular men were too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. In fact, this so-called evidence is deeply problematical, having been extracted through torture or other forms of abuse, and/or having been produced by deeply unreliable witnesses. The only concession to critics was Obama’s promise that there would be periodic reviews of the men’s cases. However, it was revealed in December that these reviews have not taken place.

Explaining more about the hunger strike, the attorneys wrote, “We understand that most of the men in Camp 6, which holds the largest number of detainees at Guantánamo, have been on hunger strike since February 6 to protest these practices. We have also received alarming reports of detainees’ deteriorating health, including that men have lost over 20 and 30 pounds, and that at least two dozen men have lost consciousness due to low blood glucose levels, which have dropped to life-threatening levels among some. The information we have reported has been corroborated by every attorney who has visited the base or communicated with their client since February.”

They added, “According to medical experts, irreversible cognitive impairment and physiological damage such as loss of hearing, blindness, and hemorrhage may begin to occur by the 40th day of a hunger strike, and death follows thereafter. We would think officials charged with the care of detainees would consider these events urgent and gravely concerning; instead, JTF-GTMO officials have yet to offer any response other than to brush aside the reports by detainee counsel as ‘falsehoods.'”

This is a disgrace, of course — and especially so because the authorities refuse to accept that it is taking place. As Carol Rosenberg reported for the Miami Herald, March 15 was “the first admission of a protest” acknowledged by the authorities, although it did not go far enough. Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the prison authorities, denied “a widespread phenomenon, as alleged,” but he conceded, “for the first time after weeks of denial,” as Rosenberg put it, “that the number had surged to 14 from the five or six detainees who had for years been considered hunger strikers among the 166 captives at Guantánamo.”

He added that one prisoner was in the hospital on Friday, and, as as Rosenberg put it, that five others “were being fed elsewhere through tubes tethered through their noses into their stomachs.” Eight others “had not yet been sufficiently malnourished to merit tube feedings but had shunned enough consecutive meals and lost enough weight to meet the Pentagon’s Guantánamo definition of a hunger striker.”

The gulf between the prisoners’ statements and the government’s position is still immense however, and unfortunately the government has a terrible reputation for hiding the truth about Guantánamo — including last September, when Adnan Latif, a Yemeni, and a cleared prisoner with mental health problems, died at the prison in circumstances that have not been adequately explained.

In their letter to Chuck Hagel, the attorneys for the prisoners reminded the new defense secretary that, “As a United States Senator, you took the position that mistreatment of prisoners at Guantánamo could not be tolerated because it was immoral and because it jeopardized the security of the United States.” They added, “You also argued that the continued existence of the prison was one of the reasons why the United States was ‘losing the image war around the world.'”

Words can mean nothing, of course, as we know from the example provided by President Obama, but the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo does not go away by being ignored.

If men are not to die as a result of the hunger strike, senior officials need to act, and they need to act quickly. Pretending there are not fundamental, deep-seated and unacceptable problems at Guantánamo is not the way to do it. Cleared prisoners need freeing, and they need freeing now.

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.

17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted a link to this article on Facebook after first publishing it on the “Close Guantanamo”website, I wrote:

    For “Close Guantanamo,” here’s my latest article about the massive ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo, now in its fifth week and involving over 100 prisoners, and the US government’s claims that it doesn’t exist – and that just 14 men are involved. Instead of lying, and establishing conditions in which men will die, the government needs to recognize the injustice of Guantanamo, and immediately release the 86 cleared prisoners still held.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    As long as it challenges their behaviour…

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    MadLion Muir wrote:

    Sharing this painful situation.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Carol and MadLion. Good to hear from you both. Also, my appearance on RT is now available in YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jW5uTGKOadw

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Tonight, after I posted a link to the version above on Facebook, Kaizer Kaizer wrote:

    They are praying for the prisoners’ death! It’s amazing a country that pretends to be so civilized is actually so barbaric!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui JS wrote:

    I hope the Hagel letter achieves something.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kaizer. Yes, I’ve been dwelling on that chasm between America’s perception of itself and the reality quite a lot lately. And Mui, yes, it seems remarkable to me that nothing is able to shift Obama’s complete inertia regarding Guantanamo. Officials need to begin to engage with lawyers and other concerned parties if there’s to be any movement. The stonewalling and denials and indifference are ludicrous and deeply insulting.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Well done Andy … great work as always…

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Carol. I missed your comment earlier. Good to hear from you.

  10. Curt Wechsler says...

    I really think that what we should be focussing on right now is the fact that Obama is willing to let the hunger strikers die, and confront people about letting that happen. I keep visualizing the “I voted” button superimposed on the classic photo of prisoners behind barbed wire, with the words “but NOT for this.”

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s a powerful image, Curt. I’m happy to get involved with a campaign if you go ahead with it.
    And good to hear from you, by the way!

  12. Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo This week – Birmingham, London | KonkNaija Media says...

    [...] With a huge hunger strike taking place at Guantánamo, the prison is on the mainstream media’s radar more than it has been for many, many months, if not years — and, in the UK, it is also time for there to be a renewed focus on the case of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison. [...]

  13. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy.

    One of the big mysteries of the Obama administration is how did he go from such a firm opponent of extrajudicial Guantanamo detention, who was going to shut it down within a year, his current defacto position — as intransigent as Bush?

    My local educational channel broadcast, commercial free, Oliver Stone’s terrific film JFK sometime in 2009, with some expert’s commentary afterwards. During that discussion I wondered “Is this why Obama hasn’t shut down Guantanamo? Did one of his advisors arrange for him to watch JFK in the White House Theatre — and then warn him if he pushed the military and CIA too far they would assassinate him too?”

    Maybe. Maybe not. Missile strikes from UAV [unmanned aerial vehicles, i.e. drones], based on the same kind of unreliable intelligence that would have triggered sending an individual to Guantanamo in the past, are worse than sending individuals to Guantanamo, as some individuals do get sent home from Guantanamo.

    I remember Alif Mohammed, veteran of the anti-Soviet struggle, who intelligence analysts decided was the squad leader in an ambush at Lejay, solely based on his prior military experience. He was held for years, but, at least he survived.

    Cruelly, after one team arbitrarily rounded up Alif Mohammed and a dozen other men on February 10th, the USA then sent in air elements to smash the village a day later. We learned the day Alif Mohammed was interviewed following his repatriation, that his brother was killed in that February 11th aerial bombarbment.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. I’m coming round to the feeling that, actually, Obama didn’t really care much about Guantanamo when it was shown that the Republicans would make life hell for him if he didn’t back down, when Rahm Emanuel told him that independent voters didn’t care, and when the Task Force started getting jittery about releasing people who might be dangerous or harbor some grudge against the US – even if only as a result of their abysmal treatment over the previous seven — now eleven — years.
    Bit I may be wrong, of course, I do, however, think that what was even more significant was the fear and paranoia he felt when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a plane with a bomb in his underwear on Christmas Day 2009, and that this not only led to him becoming the killer drone President, extrajudicially killing people – including US citizens – in Yemen, but also introducing his ban on releasing Yemenis, and – frankly – no longer caring about releasing prisoners from Guantanamo.
    As for the point you make about intelligence, it’s hugely important. I’ve made it myself on occasion, but it should be taken on board much more by those campaigning against drones, who, for the most part, are not concentrating enough on the lessons that can be learned from Guantanamo – primarily, I believe, the question of the so-called intelligence and how untrustworthy it has always been, ever since the “war on terror” began.

  15. arcticredriver says...

    Americans like to think their soldiers, sailors and pilots are the world’s best. The smartest, the most courageous, the best trained, the best equipped, the most well disciplined, and the most flexible, when flexibility is called for, and a bunch of other qualities.

    I think the only notion Americans have about their soldiers being the world’s best that could go without challenge is that they are generally the best equipped.

    I think the record we have read here shows an enormous deficit in a key kind of courage — intellectual courage. Exceptional officers, like Darrel Vandeveld, showed intellectual courage. But officers who would plunge into the burning depths of the Pentagon, on 2001-9-11, like one Guantanamo commandant, either couldn’t conceive of the possibility that some of the captives were telling the truth when they said they were innocent bystanders, or they lacked the courage to pay attention to any doubts they had.

    Most were too afraid of risking playing a role in releasing the next hijacker.

    Intellectual cowardice, like that displayed by those who didn’t seriously examine the possibility that captives could be telling the truth put public safety at risk.

    This current hunger strike? We have a perfect storm. We have a stupid and brutal commandant. Those extra security measures he imposed on the captives’ communications with their lawyers — their necessity was never explained. I doubt there ever was a meaningful justification. There were hints that his performance was going to trigger him to be reassigned early. But, in the end, the decision was made to let him serve out his term.

    Morris Davis exposed Thomas Hartmann’s stupidity and incompetence — to anyone who was paying attention. But higher authority foolishly backed the more senior officer, and let him save face, in order to preserve the discipline heirarchy. I presume that is why the current commandant was not replaced.

    When Mark Buzby was the commandant he made a point of meeting and trying to talk with every single captive, and he walked the cell blocks once a week. This suggests to me he was the commandant who understood best that the camp could become one huge Milgram experiment, unless the officers set an example, and guards and their NCOs knew they could’t get away with unofficial retaliation.

    If the warden was a good officer, conditions would not deteriorate to the worst levels, even if the commandant was a brutal and stupid man. He could insist on orders in writing, which would require a paper trail precluding being given informal illegal orders. Like Buzby he could personally monitor his subordinates, and get his officers to do the same, so the guards knew unofficial brutality and excess would not be tolerated.

    But a new guard battalion has arrived, and since they are indulging in excess, they must have a weak officer, or one who is brutal and stupid, like the commandant.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Very powerful analysis and commentary, arcticredriver.
    And for those wanting to know, the current commander is U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John W. Smith, Jr., who took over last June from U.S. Navy Rear Adm. David B. Woods.

  17. freedetainees.org | From Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer Tells His Lawyer Disturbing Truths About the Hunger Strike says...

    [...] I have been reporting for many weeks (see here, here, here, here and here), the hunger strike began two months ago, in response to the renewed ill-treatment [...]

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