Voices from the Hunger Strike in Guantánamo

29.3.13

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.

Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we are deeply concerned about the prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo, which we first wrote about here, and its effect on prisoners already ground down by what, for the majority of them, is eleven years of indefinite detention without charge or trial, with no end to their imprisonment in sight after President Obama failed to fulfill his promise to close the prison.

The President has been hindered by the intervention of Congress, where lawmakers, for cynical reasons, intervened to impose almost insurmountable restrictions to the release of prisoners, but President Obama is also to blame — through his refusal to make Guantánamo an issue, since that promise to close it on his second day in office, and through his imposition of an unjustifiable ban on releasing Yemenis cleared for release by his own inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force.

Of the 166 men still held, 86 were cleared for release by the Task Force, and two-thirds of these men are Yemenis, consigned to Guantánamo, possibly forever, because, over three years ago, a Nigerian man, recruited in Yemen, tried and failed to blow up a plane bound for the US and a moratorium on releasing Yemenis was issued by President Obama. The others are either hostages of Congress, or men in need of third countries to offer them a new home, because they face torture or other ill-treatment their home countries.

The hunger strike began seven weeks ago in response to aggressive cell searches, which also included the seizure of personal items, and, in particular, manhandling of the prisoners’ copies of the Koran. In a letter to the new defense secretary Chuck Hagel on March 14, 51 lawyers described a set of “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.”

These complaints, added the the despair brought on by the prisoners’ perception that they have been abandoned by the Obama administration, explains why over a hundred prisoners are engaged in a hunger strike, even though they are risking their lives by doing so.

Sadly, the indifference of the administration to their plight also explains why the authorities refused to acknowledge that a hunger strike was taking place until the media started to focus sufficient attention on the prison that it was impossible to ignore, and also why they have, to date, only conceded that 31 prisoners are on a hunger strike.

On Monday, for example when the authorities acknowledged that 28 men were on a hunger strike, Capt. Robert Durand, a prison spokesman, said that ten men were being force-fed, and that three men had been hospitalized for dehydration, as the New York Times explained.

In contrast, however, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, who represents several Guantánamo prisoners, said he spoke by telephone on Friday with two of his clients who are participating in the hunger strike — Moaz al-Alawi, a Yemeni who is held in Camp Six, and Abdulhadi Faraj, a Syrian who is held in Camp Five.

As the New York Times reported, Kassem said that each man said they had lost about 30 pounds. Apart from “a few elderly prisoners,” they told him, “no one is accepting food from prison authorities.” He added, “Prisoners are not eating anything, surviving only on water. Any supplies left on cellblocks and with prisoners have now been exhausted.”

Carlos Warner, a federal public defender from Ohio who represents Fayiz al-Kandari, one of the last two Kuwaitis in the prison, agreed. Last week, following a visit to his client, he released unclassified notes in which he described al-Kandari as “gaunt” and “too weak to stand,” and noted that he had stated that “all men are striking” and also, as the Times put it, that they were also “refusing prescribed medication, except for two elderly detainees in Camp Six.”

Warner also spoke to CBS News. On March 23, he explained that al-Kandari, whose case we have covered here, “appeared to have lost 20 percent of his body weight due to a hunger strike that began six weeks ago,’ as the broadcaster described it.

In Warner’s words, “Fayiz could not stand yesterday. Today, he was a bit stronger and stood to greet me. He had sallow cheeks. His waist was shockingly thin. His waist looked like the waist of my six-year-old child. He was skin and bones. He was disoriented and exhausted both days.” He added, “He refused honey I brought him. He drank only water during the meetings.”

This week Carlos Warner also spoke to CNN. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday, he bluntly described conditions at the prison as “dire.” He explained that Army Col. John Bogdan, a military police officer and the joint detention group commander at GTMO since June 2012, had “sparked the current situation.”

In his words, “Col. Bogdan lit the fuel on fire by his oppressive search of the men and taking away the things that they had grown accustomed to for years, like isomats,” the prisoners’ insulated bed mats. The Koran searches, he added, took place in this context, and, as a result, “This is about frustration; this is about the Obama administration ignoring Guantánamo in every way, shape and form.”

Warner told Christiane Amanpour that he was “a liberal who supported President Obama, but is disappointed that Obama has completely ignored Guantánamo and blamed Republicans in Congress.” That, he said, was an argument he rejected. “There’s not one person in this administration that I can call and say I need to talk somebody in the White House about the hunger strike,” he said, pointing out that President Obama had appointed a special envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, Daniel Fried, but had just closed his office and reappointed him, leaving no one in charge of Guantánamo issues.

Appointing someone in charge of closing Guantánamo is one of three demands that we at “Close Guantánamo” issued last month.

The loss of Fried, and his office, Warner said, leaves his clients in “indefinite detention for life,” adding, “It leaves them with the prospect of the only way we leave Guantánamo is death. And unfortunately, I think the men are ready to embrace this. And I don’t see the military backing off.”

CBS News also spoke to Army Capt. Jason Wright, the appointed military defense counsel for Obaydullah, an Afghan put forward for a trial by military commission under President Bush, but cleared for release under President Obama, whose innocence we wrote about here. Capt. Wright explained that he was on a hunger strike and had written, “I am in jail for almost 11 years, and still I do not know about my fate.”

Capt. Wright also said he “was ‘shocked’ by Obaydullah’s appearance two weeks ago and again when he returned to see him this week.” He told Capt. Wright that “his weight had dropped from 167 to 131 pounds after refusing meals for 45 days.”

In Capt. Wright’s opinion, “He had clearly lost weight and was visibly distressed. I think this is a manifestation of sheer desperation and hopelessness.”

Can the desperation and hopelessness be dealt with before prisoners die? President Obama needs to wake up to what is going on, and address it by, at the very minimum, lifting his ban on releasing cleared Yemenis (another of our demands) and sending them home.

Doing nothing is no longer an option. Lt. Col. Barry Wingard is the military defense attorney for Fayiz al-Kandari, one of the last two Kuwaitis still held (the other being Fawzi al-Odah), and he was the first attorney to publicise the hunger strike. Speaking to RT about Fayiz on March 24, he said, “at this point it’s official that he’s lost almost 40 pounds (18kg) — one third of his body weight from 147 pounds (67kg).”

Telling RT that “we’re running out of time,” he added that the prisoners “have figured out that probably the only way for them to go home — cleared or not — is in a wooden box.”

When the prison’s spokesman, Capt. Durand, spoke to the New York Times last week, he acknowledged that, as the Times put it, “a significant underlying condition for the recent unrest was the collapse of hopes that the United States government would at some point let them go.” Capt. Durand said, “I think there was great hope that there would be fresh movement, and there was at the beginning [of the Obama administration]. But the movement in the last year is not encouraging. I don’t dispute that there is frustration over that.”

In Congressional testimony last week, Gen. John F. Kelly, who became the naval commander at Guantánamo in November, went further. “They [the prisoners] had great optimism that Guantánamo would be closed,” he said, adding, “They were devastated, apparently … when the president backed off — at least their perception — of closing the facility. He said nothing about it in his inauguration speech. He said nothing about it in his State of the Union speech. He has said nothing about it. He’s not — he’s not restaffing the office that … looks at closing the facility.”

When the general in charge of the naval base at Guantánamo recognizes so clearly what is happening at Guantánamo, and what is wrong with the administration’s inactivity, President Obama needs to pay attention.

So please, Mr. President, wake up to the need to clear the 86 released prisoners, to review the cases of the 46 others you designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial in an executive order two years ago, and make sure that the rest of the men designated for trials are given trials.

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.

12 Responses

  1. Tom says...

    Your fact for the day. Once you have PTSD, it never completely goes away. These innocent detainees are dealing with severe PTSD symptoms AND the stress from their hunger strike, all at the same time.

    For many PTSD patients, a common fear is this: does anyone care if I’m here? If you turn for help, and it feels like everyone wants you to just go away, what do you do? Everyone has their limits.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for those very important points, Tom. They will hopefully help people to think of the men not just as abandoned by all three branches of the US government, as they are, but, from an emotional point of view, as human beings who are suffering.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Sabera Sheik-Essop wrote:

    Some of Our brothers have already died in that hell hole!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, indeed. Sabera. My archive of articles about the nine men who have died at Guantanamo is here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/category/guantanamo-suicides/

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article about the hunger strike at Guantanamo, in which lawyers for the prisoners tell their heartbreaking stories. I was particularly moved by Carlos Warner, a lawyer for Fayiz al-Kandari, one of the last two Kuwaitis, explaining, “His waist looked like the waist of my six-year-old child. He was skin and bones.” Get this wretched place closed down before people die!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Afifah Kuddah wrote:

    Get this wretched place closed down before ‘more’ people die!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, yes, Afifah, although my comment was meant as shorthand for “before people die as a result the hunger strike.” I am aware that nine men have died at Guantanamo – three in 2006, two in 2007, one in 2009, two in 2011, and one in 2012.

  8. the talking dog says...

    It’s hard not to be extraordinarily cynical about the Obama Administration, which, after all, is the first American Administration, and quite possibly the first government anywhere ever that publicly announced that it not only has an avowed doctrine of liquidating enemies of the state, but it actually has a meeting about it every Tuesday, together with supposed super-secret legal memoranda establishing that this abomination is somehow not simply ordinary premeditated murder. Now that Obama is safely reelected, there would appear to be no longer any need for lip service on Guantanamo which, after all, he will end up having “owned” longer than George W. Bush by the end of his term (unless his brilliant management gets the entire camp population to commit suicide, by hunger strike or otherwise).

    Most Americans, of course, have no idea anything at all is going on at Guantanamo (even among those seemingly few aware that the place is still open and in business); those few who do pay attention are treated either to bizarrely censored coverage of proceedings among the “9-11 plotters” (never “alleged” plotters) or, of course, the other coverage that likens Guantanamo to a Caribbean beach resort, based on the one-day wonder tours (that never involve actual contact with detainees) of so-called “journalists” happy to do the Pentagon’s propaganda dissemination.

    It seems that the bad old days are back; one would hope for better from a man who campaigned on the basis of restoring the rule of law and his bona fides as a “constitutional law scholar.”

    The only thing we all can do at this point is be outraged, and get the word out; only the sheer embarrassment these people might face at their posh cocktail parties for having managed to make Bush and Cheney look downright humanitarian will be the only thing that moves them to action. So kudos Andy, and Tom, and everybody else involved in getting this word out there.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, TD. Wonderful to hear from you, and your comments, though needing a large headstone, provide a fitting epitaph for America today.
    For more Talking Dog wisdom, please see the website: http://www.thetalkingdog.com/
    There you will also find a substantial archive of interviews conducted with lawyers and all manner of other people who have lost years of their lives struggling with the monstrous pit of injustice that is Guantanamo. TD was one of the first ever people to interview me, way back in September 2007. At the time, we didn’t know the Bush era would ever end. Little did we suspect that what was to follow would be such a disaster.

  10. Tom says...

    A suggestion. As we continue to do what we can to get the word out and bring about change, protect yourself against troll attacks. I don’t know who all of them are. But take steps to not only protect your PC, but also your overall health as well. Like Tim Robbins said, even the most dedicated activists deserve a break now and then.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. Hopefully I’m mostly having a break now, for a few days over Easter. Just posting a new article, and then I’ll be offline for a couple of days …

  12. 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 of the [...]

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