The Prisoners Speak: Reports from the Hunger Strike in Guantánamo

30.4.13

On Friday, I received an alarming message from inside Guantánamo, from a reliable source who described the impact of the prison-wide hunger strike, now nearing the three-month mark, by stating that the the guards were “putting people in isolation and all day long making lots of noise by speaking loudly, running on the metal stairs and leaving their two-way radios on all day and night. People cannot sleep.”

The source added, “There are at least four people that are at the very edge and one named Khiali Gul from Afghanistan is in a bad shape and cannot move and cannot talk or eat or drink. When other detainees tell the guards about him, they say, ‘When he is completely unconscious, then we will take him.’ The chances are that he will die.”

I have been reporting on the hunger strike since it first became public knowledge in February, and it is reports like the one above, and the statements that have been featured in prominent newspapers — by Samir Moqbel, a Yemeni, in the New York Times, and Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, in the Observer — that have helped to put the spotlight back on Guantánamo, after several years in which most people had lost interest.

President Obama took office in 2009 promising to close Guantánamo within a year, but when he failed to do so, through his own inaction and obstruction in Congress, the mainstream media and the American people largely moved on, even though the injustice of Guantánamo ought to become more pronounced rather than less the longer it is open.

Of the 166 men still held at Guantánamo, 86 were cleared for release by an inter-agency task force established by the President in 2009, but are still held with no end in sight to what is their indefinite detention — for the rest of their lives, unless there is a major change in the way America operates. If these men’s indefinite detention was not quite planned, 46 others have an executive order, issued by President Obama in March 2011, to thank for their predicament. Found to be too dangerous to release, even though no evidence exists that could be used in court (meaning that it is fundamentally unreliable), they were promised periodic reviews of their cases when they were consigned to life imprisonment without charge or trial, but those reviews have never materialized.

When these facts are known, the hunger strike becomes readily comprehensible, and now that some key parts of the mainstream media have woken up to the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo — and, fortunately, show no sign of giving up on it in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, which some dark forces within America wanted to use to stir up a whole new wave of Islamophobia — it remains crucial that the voices of the men continue to be heard.

Last week, Jason Leopold of Truthout helped to keep the spotlight on some of the men that the prisoners themselves claim are refusing food, through discussions with their lawyers. The US authorities, having initially responded to the news of the hunger strike by claiming that it didn’t exist, have steadily been acknowledging that it does, and have been revising their figures upwards of the numbers of prisoners taking part. As of April 26, the military stated that 97 prisoners are hunger strikers, that 19 are being force-fed, and that five have been hospitalized. Even this, however, fails to match the prisoners’ own claims that around 130 of the remaining prisoners are on the hunger strike

One of those on the hunger strike is Abdulsalam Al-Hela, a 45-year old Yemeni businessman kidnapped in Egypt in September 2002 and held in “black sites” before his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2004. As Leopold described it, he “does not understand why he and other Guantánamo prisoners reside in a perpetual state of legal limbo.” In a meeting in March, he asked his attorney, David Remes, “Can it really be true that US, with all its power, all over the world, can’t solve the problems of 100 men?”

Al-Hela has been on the hunger strike since the first day, February 6, and is “gaunt and weak” like most of the hunger strikers. Remes told Leopold that he “walks with the aid of an aluminum cane,” and “has lost more than 30 pounds” since the hunger strike began.

The hunger strike began in response to a change in the behavior of the guards. This apparently started last summer, when a new guard force arrived, and, as Leopold explained, “The Navy personnel who has previously patrolled the cellblocks were replaced by soldiers returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prisoners complained to their lawyers bitterly and often about being ‘tormented’ and ‘provoked’ by the guards.”

Carlos Warner, an attorney with the Office of the Federal Defender for the Northern District of Ohio, who represents Fayiz al-Kandari, one of the last two Kuwaitis in the prison, “noted on March 20 that his client complained not only of guards ‘provoking’ the prisoners, but threatening to kill them — a claim that Pentagon and Guantánamo officials have vehemently denied in all cases.”

Fayiz has long been a resilient prisoner, regarded by the authorities as difficult because he had not been “broken” by years of interrogation, but he is now extremely weak, and, as his military defense team, led by Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, explained on April 14, “Reflecting on our latest trip to Guantánamo Bay, the picture of Fayiz keeps coming to our mind. Fayiz has become abnormally thin due to extreme loss of body weight. You could fit your hands around his waist with both hands touching.”

In Truthout, Jason Leopold also delved into an incident on January 2, a month before the hunger strike began, when non-lethal rounds were fired at a prisoner in the recreation yard for those in Camp 6, regarded as the most compliant and cooperative of the remaining prisoners, who were allowed to spend a lot of their time communally until a clampdown on April 13, when most of them were put in solitary confinement.

The authorities claimed that one prisoner tried to climb the fence and “a small crowd of detainees began throwing rocks at the guard tower,” after which the rounds were fired, and one Afghan was hit in the throat. However, Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, a Yemeni, is one of several prisoners who said that “it wasn’t the prisoners who provoked the guard force, but a guard who overreacted” after a prisoner entered the recreation area against his wishes.

David Remes, who represents 13 Yemeni prisoners, provide unclassified notes of a meeting on March 7 with Uthman, which stated, “Detainee started shaking door (very common). Guard in tower pointed rifle at him. Brothers in yard started shouting. Guard swung around with his rifle and started shooting at them — just one bullet, which hit a detainee in the throat.”

Another Yemeni, Yasein Ismael, told Remes on March 5 that the prisoners were “surprised when a guard in a tower pointed a gun at detainees and shot into the group.” He said, “We were defenceless. We had no weapons.” He added that he spoke to the staff judge advocate, the people in the psychiatric ward, and the investigators, and said, “I told them I thought my life was in danger. I didn’t go out for a month because I thought I’d be killed by mistake or on purpose. They keep creating provocations, bringing Hummers with machine guns. No reason.”

Ismael, Remes said, weighed just 115 pounds when he saw him in March. He added that he “was unable to keep his balance and had to drink a ‘sugary water substance’ to remain alert.”

After the shooting incident, there was a five-day hunger strike. An officer in charge apparently met with the prisoners and apologized, but soon after legal papers were confiscated from the prisoners’ cells, and then came the Koran searches that caused the initial outrage amongst the prisoners, leading to the hunger strike that is still ongoing.

The trigger was apparently the death, last September, of Adnan Latif, who allegedly hoarded medication that he used to kill himself. Investigators thought he might have hidden it in his Koran, leading Col. John Bogdan, the commander of Guantánamo’s Joint Detention Group, to order the prisoners’ Korans to be searched, despite protestations from the prisoners.

Yasein Ismael described how certain guards tried to provoke the prisoners. “We thought they wanted us to react violent to give excuse for them to harm us,” he said, and Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman added that some prisoners “started breaking cameras in their cells.” Then came the Hummers. “[Three] groups, one with gun, one with sticks and one with shields,” Ismael said, adding, “Brothers tried to forestall attack by agreeing to be peaceful. A peaceful protest. We passed word to that block [that was attempting to dismantle surveillance cameras], who calmed down. So we foiled the Army’s plan. But the guards entered anyway. They used pepper spray on the men from large canister.”

Uthman explained, “That was the beginning of the [hunger] strike. We covered cameras, stopped attending classes, had sit-ins. Everyone went on the hunger strike.”

Noticeably, the prisoners “offered to surrender their Korans and end their hunger strike instead of having them searched,” as happened with a similar situation in 2006, but the authorities refused. Salman Rabeii, another Yemeni, said he “believes the offer was refused because Korans provide the prisoners with ‘spiritual strength, so you will kill yourselves if you take it away.’” He added that the authorities were afraid they would “look bad in the media” if they took the prisoners’ Korans away.

As the hunger strike has progressed, there have been several suicide attempts, largely dismissed by the authorities, and prisoners disappearing from Camp 6. As Leopold explained, “The lawyers’ notes exhaustively describe the accounts of prisoners who said they saw dozens of other detainees falling unconscious and being hauled off to the maximum-security camp [Camp 5] by medical personnel to be held in isolation as punishment for participating in the hunger strike, never to return to compliant Camp 6.”

Hussein Almerfedi, another Yemeni, told David Remes on March 5, “A detainee dropped unconscious. We do not know if he’s alive.” The day after, Abdulsalam Al-Hela said, “Brothers try to revive the one who lost consciousness to spare him camps [i.e. Camp 5]. More than 20 have been sent to Camp 5, isolation, for punishment.”

Yasein Ismael said that, “in an attempt to break the hunger strike, the temperature in the cells was lowered to 62 degrees,” as Leopold put it. Ismael added, “That’s very cold, especially for weak men.” Others “said they were prohibited from discussing the hunger strike during phone calls with their family members, and if they uttered a word about it their calls would be disconnected.”

Meetings between officials and the prisoners have led to nothing. One involved “the colonel” — presumably Col. Bogden — and Salman Rabeii told Remes on March 7 that the “chief doctor” also tried to negotiate, but all attempts to negotiate have failed. The prisoners want freedom and justice, but neither are on offer.

In a letter to David Remes on March 11, Yasein Ismael wrote that the hunger strike “is going toward the worst. I believe I am going to die in this hunger strike and this might be my last letter, or today is probably my last day in this world.”

Two week ago, Remes told Leopold, “Ismael fell unconscious in his cell in Camp 5 and was moved to a hospital,” where he is now one of the 19 prisoners being force-fed.

The words above only touch on the horrors of Guantánamo as the men still held hold out for death or justice, but I believe, given the way they have been so shamefully abandoned by the Obama administration, Congress, the courts and the American people, that their despair is justified, and that their actions are indeed the only way for their plight to be noticed. The main question now is whether President Obama will act before any more of the prisoners in Guantánamo join Adnan Latif in death.

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.

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

21 Responses

  1. I Really Hope Obama's Finally Grown A Pair On Gitmo - Not the Singularity - Not the Singularity says...

    [...] More from the indispensable Andy Worthington here. [...]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Sayyidah Salam wrote:

    What did you think of his statement today about renewing his efforts to pressure Congress?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I need to analyze it, Sayyidah. He certainly said the right things about the injustice of it all, but only said he’d look once more at working with Congress, not mentioning that he can bypass Congress if he wishes, under the waiver in the NDAA.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Ferrari wrote:

    Thank you, Andy.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Elizabeth. Good to hear from you.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Thank you Andy. Sharing. Px

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    And thanks to you, Pauline. I was on the BBC three times today – on Newsday at 7am, on BBC World News with George Aligiah at around 12.20, and prior to that on World Have Your Say on the World Service. The latter is here, and begins 19 minutes in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p017k02z

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    Once again too many thoughts to be able to put it in words…but I just want to say that I wrote to the White House yesterday, and that I expressed my concern about the lack of empathy this administration is showing to the world.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Toia. Expressing concern about the lack of empathy this administration is showing to the world is a very powerful thing to have done.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Jason Leopold wrote:

    Andy, as always, I am incredibly appreciative and grateful for your support of my work. Your reporting makes this story so much more powerful. Proud to stand alongside you.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Jason. I’m glad you feel that I added something to the story, but I was mainly just trying to find a way to get your work out there that didn’t involve a straight cross-post! As I mentioned above, it’s hugely important that we hear from the men themselves – so people can realize that these are real people suffering and prepared to risk their lives to let the world know that they are all indefinitely detained, and that this injustice needs to be brought to an end.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Umm Ghazi wrote:

    Andy i listened in to the podcast link of world have your say, but i don’t hear you on the show did they cut it short ? or do i have the wrong show ?

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Umm Ghazi wrote:

    this is the direct link for the discussion on the Guantanamo hunger strikers http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/whys ( one mans take on it during the discussion,was chilling to say the least )

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    The segment begins just before 19 minutes into the show, Umm Ghazi. I just checked it. It’s all there! http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p017k02z

  15. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy, for your dedication in keeping this important issue before the public.

    As to Obama’s recent statement — is it possible he is experiencing renewed frustration with the military’s officer corps covert undermining of his policies?

    He may be the Commander-in-Chief, but I suspect his advisors would prevent him from ordering the replacement of Colonel John Bogdan, or of replacing the recently arrived battalion of MPs who serve as guards.

    The Colonels who have commanded the DDG are close to the end of their careers. They don’t expect to be promoted to General. I suspect Bogdan is covertly defying the President’s authority, and with the old nudge, nudge, wink, wink, has given those under his command tacit direction to escalate the tension with the captives to provide justification for repression.

    I think I may have mentioned how I was struck when 60 minutes interviewed CIA director George Tenet that much of his interview he seemed to be describing himself not as a sober, professional, unemotional intelligence analysts, but more as one of America’s unofficial designated vengeance takers.

    And, during the bad old days, such as when Geoffrey Miller was in charge, the guards acted as if, without regard to their written orders, they too were, in a small way, designated vengeance takers.

    I think you quoted Shaker, quoting A Colonel (probably Bogdan) stating he was going to return Guantanamo to the days of greater repression.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, quite possibly you’re correct, arcticredriver, although sadly, these people, like the Colonel, may not even recognize vengeance – they may think they’re just doing what’s “right.”
    I hadn’t thought of Obama having a dig at the Guantanamo personnel, but it could be. Mostly he seemed to be directing his aim at Congress, as usual, while deflecting attention from himself. Nevertheless, he delivered a powerful analysis of what’s unforgiveably wrong with Guantanamo, which must provide assistance in pushing for the prison’s closure.

  17. r.dahlin says...

    The LHN is just lying again & attempting to place blame onto the U.S. Congress. He has full power to run JTF-GTMO as cmdr.-in-cheat. He also has power to transfer out prisoners pursuant to NDAA. He is just your average treasoneous and lying civil servant.
    I firmly believe sadly the LHN really has no say about closing JTF-GTMO for this comsumate liar is just a puppet. His masters are the ones calling the shots.
    Unless the people begin to organize nothing will happen but more repression.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    I dont know what LHN means in reference to President Obama, Mr. Dahlin, but I agree that he has power that he isn’t using, as he and his advisers don’t regard it as politically convenient for him to assert his authority in his dealings with Congress regarding Guantanamo. We will see what happens, but I believe the time for stalling is over.

  19. 5/1/13 Andy Worthington | The Scott Horton Show says...

    [...] Worthington, author of The Guantanamo Files, discusses his article “The Prisoners Speak: Reports from the Hunger Strike in Guantanamo;” the likelihood that the remaining prisoners will be held until they die, without charge or [...]

  20. Rob says...

    This is a serious development, and I think will change the way the public sees Guantánamo, though it’s tragic that it has to come to this. If people start dying, it may just really come to a head. My two cents worth:

    1) If one released prisoner ever commits an act of violence or terror anywhere, even if not against the US or of great violence, Obama would still be flayed alive by opponents – he is not willing to expend political capital and take the risk of that happening, so what he does is try to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak: while paying lip service to lofty principles, he lets the situation drag on for his successor to deal with. It’s sad that one politician’s career takes precedence over the lives of several men, but I think that for many politicians this kind of calculation is rather easily made.
    2) One aspect which is rarely, if ever, mentioned is what right US troops have to be at Guantánamo in the first place. The February 23, 1903 lease of the naval base is apparently controversial, and it isn’t clear whether it should still be valid, as it is surely enforced partly at gunpoint. There is a long history of the US having its way with Cuba, enforcing dubious “agreements” which are simply backed by the threat of force.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Rob. Good to hear from you. Your analysis of the political reasoning is sadly accurate, I think, although I hope the momentum there is now is such that it cannot be easily brushed aside.
    As for the dubious lease, yes, you’re right – it’s not discussed much at all, although it’s clearly unacceptable. The American people need to push for a serious scaling-down of America’s military presence abroad.

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