Guantánamo Authorities Respond to Hunger Strike with Violence; Red Cross Complains

23.4.13

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.

In response to the prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo, the authorities last weekend stormed into Camp 6, the block where the majority of the prisoners are held, and hauled most of the prisoners off to solitary confinement.

The authorities attempted to justify their actions — but failed to understand that the men who are endangering their lives by embarking on a hunger strike are doing so not to upset the authorities for no reason, or to challenge their authority needlessly, but because they despair of ever being released.

Even though 86 of the 166 men still held were cleared for release by an inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force established by President Obama in 2009, the US government has turned its back on them. Although two-thirds of the cleared prisoners are Yemenis, President Obama issued a blanket ban on releasing any Yemenis after the failed underwear bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009 (perpetrated by a Nigerian man recruited in Yemen).

Congress has also raised obstacles preventing the release of prisoners, and the court of appeals in Washington D.C. — the D.C. Circuit Court — has also issued rulings preventing the release of prisoners for reasons that have much more to do with ideology and paranoia than with the facts.

The men are effectively stranded at Guantánamo, and will die there unless action is taken immediately by President Obama to bring this intolerable situation to an end.

Instead, however, President Obama has said nothing, and has left it to military officials to attempt to airbrush the prisoners’ profound grievances out of existence, portraying the hunger strike as a question of restoring order against a hostile force.

As the New York Times explained last Wednesday, after a briefing at Guantánamo for a handful of media organizations (following a ban on reporters’ visits for several weeks), military officials described conditions in the prison in the weeks leading up to the raid as “chaotic, with detainees breaking rules with impunity, blocking cameras and windows, shouting at guards, splashing them with urine and poking sticks at them through the fencing. They said prisoners refused to go into their cells and shut their doors for a daily two-hour lockdown, and it was deemed too dangerous for guards to enter the common area to remove a troublemaker when many prisoners were freely roaming.”

The officials told the Times that the pre-dawn raid on April 13, on Camp 6 — where the majority of the prisoners had been living in relative freedom, allowed most of the time to mingle in the block’s communal areas — “was an effort by guards to force prisoners living in communal housing to move to individual cells.” The raid, they said, began at 5:10 a.m. and lasted about five hours, and only began after representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross had finished visiting. That was dressed up as coincidental, although it was clearly no such thing.

Moving vulnerable men who are in despair about their plight to solitary confinement is particularly cruel, although the Times failed to mention this. Instead, it was noted that the officials said that, “in its early stages, detainees wielding broomsticks hit two guards on their helmets during a brief melee that resulted in injuries to five detainees.” They added, however, that “the majority of the detainees did not offer any resistance, going to their cells as instructed or lying in the common area to be handcuffed.” Rear Adm. John W. Smith Jr., the commander of the Guantánamo Joint Task Force, specifically said that he had ordered the raid “because guards could not see into the facility to ensure the safety of the detainees.”

That, however, is a poor cover story for what, in reality, was obviously a dispute about order and control.

The military showed reporters around Camp 6, where, as the Times noted, the prisoners were “now under lockdown.” During the tour, prison guards “could be seen sitting at metal tables in the common areas and walking the two-tiered cell blocks, peering into the closed cells.” In addition, “In a central control room, guards watched monitors showing several dozen detainees inside their cells.” Officials explained that, prior to the raid, the prisoners “had covered up 147 out of 160 surveillance cameras,” although no video or photographic evidence was provided, and Adm. Smith said that no filming had taken place.

Col. John Bogdan, the commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo’s Detention Group — blamed by the prisoners for starting the hunger strike through aggressive cell searches and abusive treatment of the prisoners’ Korans — told the press that the guards had “trained for the raid for three weeks.” According to this account, the prisoners, armed with “about two dozen metal sticks and wooden staffs taken from brooms and mops, a metal bar taken from exercise equipment, and long staffs made from crushed bottles wrapped in tape,” fought with guards, leading to two guards being hit and four non-lethal rounds being shot by the guards. What was not explained was how the prisoners were supposed to have been able to gather so many sticks and staffs without anyone noticing.

Capt. Richard Stoltz, the commander of the prison medical group, said that the two guards were not hurt. Of the prisoners, one “was hit with rubber pellets in his ‘left flank,’ and two of them were later removed from his skin.” Three others “had minor injuries to their forearm, chest and elbow.” A fifth prisoner, alarmingly, “began banging his own head into the wall of his cell, and he was treated with three sutures.”

He was not the only prisoner driven to self-harm. The officials stated that two others “tried to commit suicide by hanging themselves” — one on the night before the raid, and the other after it.

Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we remain deeply concerned that the Obama administration has done nothing to resolve the hunger strike without violence, and has done nothing to free any of the 86 men cleared for release, even though the hunger strike has now been underway for two and half months.

We share the concerns aired by Navi Pillay, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, and also the complaints aired on April 11 by Peter Maurer, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the prison visitors whose access to the majority of prisoners worldwide is supposed to be dependent on their discretion.

Throughout the Bush administration, senior Red Cross figures occasionally broke with protocol and openly criticized the administration, as in October 2003, when Christophe Girod, the head of the office in Washington D.C., said, “The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.”

To date, however, President Obama has avoided serious censure, although it is now well-deserved, as he now thoroughly owns Guantánamo, and has thoroughly abandoned the men still held there.

As Reuters described it, Peter Maurer “expressed opposition to the force-feeding of prisoners staging a mass hunger strike at the Guantánamo prison camp and said he urged US President Barack Obama to do more to resolve the ‘untenable’ legal plight of inmates held there.”

Maurer “made his case in talks with Obama and other top US officials in Washington,” while a team of ICRC representatives was in Guantánamo, and his words were clearly meant to shake President Obama out of his torpor regarding Guantánamo.

As Reuters proceeded to explain, he said at a press conference that the hunger strike “was a ‘symptom’ of the prisoners’ legal plight,” and explained, “The issue of Guantánamo is politically blocked in this country.” He also said that his message to President Obama and his advisers was that “they should put all their energy” into reaching a solution regarding Guantánamo.

Maurer also “said he had pressed Obama, senior administration officials and US lawmakers to work harder to address the Guantánamo prisoners’ legal predicament,” adding that “the main issues include delays in promised regular reviews of prisoners’ cases and hold-ups in transfer to their home countries of those deemed no longer a security risk.”

These remain key demands for everyone concerned with closing Guantánamo, echoing complaints we have long made here at “Close Guantánamo,” and which we formalized in February, and have reiterated many times since.

See below for details:

Contact the White House and tell President Obama, “Please release the 86 prisoners cleared for release by your inter-agency task force, and initiative objective reviews for the 46 others that you designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial in an executive order two years ago.” Call 202-456-1111 or submit a comment online. Please also tell President Obama, “Please appoint a White House official to direct the closure of Guantánamo, and direct the Secretary of Defense to use his authority under the law to release men who will not be charged. Please also lift your own blanket ban on sending home the cleared Yemeni prisoners.”

Contact Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and tell him, “Please use your authority under the law to resume transferring the 86 men cleared for release by President Obama’s inter-agency task force. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA 2013) gives you the authority to certify men or issue waivers so they can be released from Guantánamo, and you must use this authority without further delay.” Call Secretary Hagel at the Department of Defense on 703-571-3343 or submit a comment online.

Please note: The photo at the top of this article is by Rambledove, on Flickr, and is part of Witness Against Torture’s Flickr stream.

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 “Close Guantánamo campaign”, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

20 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Neil Mckenna wrote:

    FYI Andy – I haven’t listened to it, don’t know if you knew about it or were involved even, but Carol Ann Grayson just posted it. Thought you might be interested.
    BBC World Service – World Have Your Say, Should a place like Guantanamo still exist?
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0175w4c

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I was asked to appear on it, Neil, but I didn’t get the message until too late. A friend noted, “The guests ranged from former detainees to a former Bush official. I know their exec. producer will talk about ‘maintain balance in various points of view’ on the program. However, after about 15 seconds of the former Bush assistant’s lies, I had to turn it off.” As I said to him, “Sometimes it’s good to go up against the propagandists; on the other hand, pretending that objectivity is acceptable when it comes to Guantanamo isn’t something that I have ever, or will ever find acceptable. It’s built on lies, and until those are exposed the perpetrators and their apologists simply shouldn’t be allowed to peddle their filth as though it bore some resemblance to the truth.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Kathleen Kelly wrote:

    Thank you Andy, for your continued reporting.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul Rigby wrote:

    Seconded.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Neil, and thank you for the supportive words, Kathleen and Paul. My brief commentary on the BBC is that it’s not Murdoch – and if you imagine what Murdoch wouldn’t be funding if he was in the place of the BBC, it’s a good indicator of what the BBC does well, as opposed to all the things it does badly and shouldn’t do, its establishment bias, and its increasingly craven approach to politics.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    We are delighted to say that Andy will be speaking at the annual ‘Independence FROM America’ demonstration at the American base at NSA Menwith Hill on Thursday 4 July this year (5-9 ish plus pm). More details soon.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks also for the mention of July 4, Lindis!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone who has liked and shared this. Sad news from Guantanamo lawyer Carlos Warner this evening – Fayiz al-Kandari, one of the last two Kuwaitis, is now being force-fed.
    My profile of Fayiz from 2009: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/10/17/resisting-injustice-in-guantanamo-the-story-of-fayiz-al-kandari/

  9. Tom says...

    Just upgraded on part of my home PC network (faster uploads and various posts). Now, will the Powers that Be see me as a “threat”? Who knows.

    I know it may seem like a thankless job Andy, but you should be commended for not backing down in fighting to fix this. Keep up the great work.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Tom. That’s very kind.

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  17. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, I agree with Tom — as always your diligent efforts to keep the detention issues before the public are important and should be commended.

    In comments on other threads I have shared my doubts about Colonel John Bogdan’s honesty, judgment and character.

    You probably saw Jason Leopold’s recent article about the captives’ lawyers trying to tell SecDef Hagel that Bogdan’s clear perjury make him “unfit for command”.

    http://www.aljazeera.com/humanrights/2013/05/20135219038341144.html

    I am skeptical that the captives had manufactured weapons. I strongly suspect that Bogdan assigned subordinates to counterfeit those improvised weapons. Maybe, initially, the improvised weapons were prepared to provides the guards who were playing the role of captives during those 3 weeks of training? Maybe it only occurred to Bogdan that the secrectly that surrounds Guantanamo would allow him to put forward weapons he ordered prepared for training his assault force as if they had actually been made by the captives.

    Could Bogdan face perjury charges? I think he could, I think he richly deserves to be charged, but I am afraid it is highly unlikely.

    One reform new SecDef Hagel has said he is interested in implementing has to do with military justice. Back in the early 2000 various commentators were claiming that the US military’s military justice was as good, provided the same protections, only in a “more streamlined” manner than the USA’s civilian justice system.

    I was willing to consider this premise, but the US miitary justice system (which is still far more just and fair than the unprecedented Military Commission system.) has this gaping hole Hagel said he wanted to fix.

    The Guantanamo Military Commissions have gone through four “Convening Authority”. It is a funny title, also used in the regular court martial system. When a soldier, seaman, airman commited an offence serious enough to merit a general court martial, one of his or her commanding officers will be the “Convening Authority”.

    The Convening Authority chooses an officer to hold a kind of preliminary hearing called an “article 32 hearing”. That officer will report back with recommendations as to whether and which charges should be laid. And the Convening Authority then gets to decide whether to follow those recommendation or to ignore them.
    The Convening Authority does not have explain their decision, and, if I understand the situation properly, that decision can’t be appealed.

    If the Convening Authority follows a recommendation to convene a General Court Martial, he or she has the authority to amend or set aside a guilty verdict and the sentence.

    From my reading Hagel wants to strip from Convening Authorities this vice-regal power to ignore recommendations to lay charges and the vice-regal power to amend or set aside verdicts and sentences.

    From my reading the reason Hagel wants to implement this reform is that there is an underground epidemic of unreported sexual assaults of members of the US military against other members of the US military. Half a decade ago I read that there had been several cases of female GIs who died of dehydration overnight because, in order to avoid risking being raped to or from visiting the latrine at night, they chose to go thirsty and not drink enough water.

    Hagel thought the senior officers who should have been taking evidence of sexual assault seriously were abusing their vice-regal authority to not lay charges, lay lesser charges, set aside sentences, etc, with the result female GIs still didn’t feel safe.

    Of course taking sexual allegations seriously is important, but I would applaud this reform for the impact it would have on public safety.

    The were several inquiries into abuse of captives in Iraq, include one by General Taguba, and another by Generals Fay and Wright. The unclassified portion of one of those reports included an appendix listing the charges that those generals thought should be laid against several individual. There was almost a full page of charges recommended against Colonel Steve Joordens, who was the senior officer present when a captive died during his interrogation at Abu Ghraib. There was half a page of charges recommended against Captain Carolyn Wood.

    In late 2002 and early 2003, Wood was the officer who commanded Damien Corsetti and Joshua Claus and other interrogators at Bagram. Clause was Omar Khadr’s main torturer in Bagram. He was the last GI to strike Dilawar, the taxi driver beaten to death at Bagram. Even after Mullah Habibullah had been beaten to death, while hooded, and suspended from the ceiling on December 4th, 2002, she allowed her subordinates to subject new captive to the same clearly potentially fatal techniques.

    Instead of being held responsible, and being charged, Wood was award a Bronze Star for Valor, and was promoted to Captain, and was given full command of Company A of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion. Nine months later Captain Wood was stationed at Abu Ghraib, and during a vacuum of leadership, issued her own torture guidelines.

    Wood bore significant responsibility for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. And she was lucky enough to be reassigned and rewarded prior to the generals arriving to investigate abuses.

    Wood was rewarded with a second Bronze Star for Valor, and was sent to be an instructor at the Military Intelligence College at Fort Huachaca. What courses did she instruct in? She instructed trainee interrogators in interrogation techniques.

    It is shocking that a torturer, responsible for subordinates who tortured innocent men to death should be appointed an instructor in interrogation techniques.

    So, when a long, detailed investigation by generals, after interviewing hundreds of witnesses, issues specific recommendations for charges that should be laid against Wood and similar individuals, why were no charges laid?

    Because the Generals who conducted the investigations weren’t directly above Wood and the individuals in the chain of command.

    I suspect that the shocking irony of this situation is that in 2002 and 2003, when the crimes took place, her commanding officer thought they should reward her “taking initiative”, even if that initiative had resulted in the easily avoidable deaths of innocent men, and that the later investigation regarded the exact same “initiatives” as crimes.

    Once the investigating general’s recommended charges who did it fall to to consider those recommendations? The same senior officers who chose to reward her for her crimes.

    If Hagel succeeds in implementing this reform it is less likely that commanding officers will get with brushing war crimes committed by their subordinates under the carpet. And, in my opinion, this would be a very good development for public safety.

    In my opinion the US military and its intelligence agencies have routinely misused their ability to classify information as secret. In my opinion the use of brutality to “soften up” captives, at Bagram, and elsewhere, was not just cruel, it put the public at much greater risk, as the flood of false leads resulted from the false confessions and false denunciations, triggered by torture and abusive interrogations, squandered vast and irreplaceable counter-terrorism resources.

    If Woods superiors had not been able to get away with their self-serving decision to not charge Wood and her subordinates, if there had been a fair, just, transparent, and above all open trial would public pressure have forced the DoD to stop torturing innocent men? Because, if it had it would have resulted in fewer resources squandered on wild goose chases, leaving more resources to guard against genuine threats.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Another excellent analysis, arcticrdriver. Thanks for revisiting the horrendous story of Capt. Carolyn Wood, who was sent to Abu Ghraib after Bagram, trailing murder in her wake – and was rewarded for doing so. Will she ever be held accountable?
    I share your interest in Chuck Hagel making changes that will make it “less likely that commanding officers will get with brushing war crimes committed by their subordinates under the carpet.” That would be something.

  19. arcticredriver says...

    Colonel Bogdan wrote, or had ghost-written for him, an op-ed on keeping GIs morale up, so they would re-enlist. http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Issue36.pdf&page=2

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that, arcticredriver.

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