For six months, Guantánamo managed to be in the news on a regular basis, as a prison-wide hunger strike succeeded in pricking the consciences of the mainstream media. Unfortunately, since the numbers of those involved fell (from 106 on July 10 to 53 a month later), the media largely moved on. At the height of the hunger strike, 46 prisoners were being force-fed, a process condemned by medical professionals, but although the US authorities state that just 15 prisoners are currently on a hunger strike, all of them are being force-fed.
Moreover, as was explained this week in an op-ed for Al-Jazeera America by Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni prisoner also known as Moaz al-Alawi, the men who are still hunger striking have no intention of giving up, even though, as al-Alwi explains, some have lost so much weight that their appearance would send shockwaves around the world if a photograph were to be leaked. As he states, “one of my fellow prisoners now weighs only 75 pounds. Another weighed in at 67 pounds before they isolated him in another area of the prison facility.”
The situation for the prisoners who are still on a hunger strike is clearly horrific. As al-Alwi states in his op-ed, which I’m posting below, the force-feeding remains “painful and horrific,” as it was when he described it previously, in another op-ed for Al-Jazeera in July that I’m also posting below.
For the men still on a hunger strike, an adequate response from President Obama would be to release all the prisoners who were cleared for release by the president’s interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010 but are still held — currently 84 of the remaining 164 prisoners. Despite promising to resume releasing cleared prisoners in a major speech on national security issues in May, just two prisoners have been released in the last five months.
Moath al-Alwi is not one of those cleared for release, and in fact he was one of 48 prisoners recommended for ongoing detention without charge or trial by the task force nearly four years ago. Two of these men subsequently died. It was recently announced that long-promised reviews for these men will begin soon, as well as for 25 others previously recommended for trials, to decide whether they should continue to be held, but it is unclear if the administration is genuinely interested in critically revisiting previous decisions. Al-Alwi, for example, had his habeas corpus petition turned down in January 2009 and his appeal was turned down in July 2011, even though, all along, as Judge Richard Leon, who ruled on his habeas petition, noted, there has never been any evidence of him “actually using arms against US or coalition forces.”
I write this after my return from the morning’s force-feeding session here at Guantánamo Bay. I write in between bouts of violent vomiting and the sharp pains in my stomach and intestines caused by the force-feeding.
The US government now claims that, among the 164 prisoners at Guantánamo, there are fewer than two dozen hunger strikers, down from well over 100 back in August. I am one of those remaining hunger strikers. I have been on hunger strike for almost nine months, since February.
The guards dragged me out of my cell at around 8:20 a.m. As they took me, shackled, past the other cells and toward the restraint chairs — my brothers and I call them torture chairs — I could barely breathe because of the smell. Some of my brothers are now tainting the walls of their cells and blocking the air-conditioning vents with their own feces in protest.
The force-feeding remains as painful and horrific as the last time I described it. The US military prison staff’s intent is to break our peaceful hunger strike. The result can be read all over my body. It is visible on my bloodied nose and in my nostrils, swollen shut from the thick tubes the nurses force into them. It is there on my jaundiced skin, because I am denied sunlight and sleep. It is there, too, in my bloated knees and feet and my ailing back, wrecked from prolonged periods spent in the torture chair and from the riot squad’s beatings. You can even hear it in my voice: I can barely speak because they choke me every time they strap me into the chair.
No form of pressure is too cruel or petty for our captors. They have deprived me of medication for as long as I remain on hunger strike. They have also taken away electric razors necessary for proper grooming and require all hunger strikers to share a single razor, despite the serious health risks that this poses. A rash spread among some of my fellow prisoners because of this measure by prison authorities.
Not even our rare calls with our families are held sacred. Three weeks ago, as the guards took me to a telephone call with my family, they subjected me to a humiliating and unnecessary search of my private areas. I resisted peacefully, as best I could, and tried to reason with the guards. To avoid these humiliating searches, some of my fellow hunger strikers have abstained from calls with their loved ones or meetings with their attorneys.
Many brothers have ended their hunger strikes because of these brutal force-feeding practices and the cruel punishment inflicted by the prison guards and military medical staff.
Others have chosen to suspend their hunger strikes to give President Barack Obama time to make good on his renewed promise to release Guantanamo prisoners.
But as for my brothers and me, we will remain on hunger strike. We pray that the next thing we taste is freedom. It may be hard to believe, but one of my fellow prisoners now weighs only 75 pounds. Another weighed in at 67 pounds before they isolated him in another area of the prison facility. These men survive only by the grace of God. May God continue to sustain us all until we achieve our goal of justice.
Editor’s Note: Moath al-Alwi [is] a Yemeni national who has been in US custody since 2002. He was one of the very first prisoners moved to Guantánamo Bay detention camp, where the US military assigned him Internment Serial Number (ISN 028). The article was translated from the Arabic by his attorney, Ramzi Kassem.
A detainee at the US prison explains that hunger striking is the only way left to cry out for life, freedom and dignity.
A month ago, the guards here at Guantánamo Bay gave me an orange jumpsuit. After years in white and brown, the colours of compliant prisoners, I am very proud to wear my new clothes. The colour orange is Guantánamo’s banner. Anyone who knows the truth about this place knows that orange is its only true colour.
My name is Moath al-Alwi. I have been a prisoner of the United States at Guantánamo since 2002. I was never charged with any crime and I have not received a fair trial in US courts. To protest this injustice, I began a hunger strike in February. Now, twice a day, the US military straps me down to a chair and pushes a thick tube down my nose to force-feed me.
When I choose to remain in my cell in an act of peaceful protest against the force-feeding, the prison authorities send in a Forced Cell Extraction team: six guards in full riot gear. Those guards are deliberately brutal to punish me for my protest. They pile up on top of me to the point that I feel like my back is about to break. They then carry me out and strap me into the restraint chair, which we hunger strikers call the torture chair.
A new twist to this routine involves the guards restraining me to the chair with my arms cuffed behind my back. The chest strap is then tightened, trapping my arms between my torso and the chair’s backrest. This is done despite the fact that the torture chair features built-in arm restraints. It is extremely painful to remain in this position.
Even after I am tied to the chair, a guard digs his thumbs under my jaw, gripping me at the pressure points and choking me as the tube is inserted down my nose and into my stomach. They always use my right nostril now because my left one is swollen shut after countless feeding sessions. Sometimes, the nurses get it wrong, snaking the tube into my lung instead, and I begin to choke.
The US military medical staff conducting the force-feeding at Guantánamo is basically stuffing us prisoners to bring up our weight — mine had dropped from 168 pounds to 108 pounds, before they began force-feeding me. They even use constipation as a weapon, refusing to give hunger strikers laxatives despite the fact that the feeding solutions inevitably cause severe bloating.
If a prisoner vomits after this ordeal, the guards immediately return him to the restraint chair for another round of force-feeding. I’ve seen this inflicted on people up to three times in a row.
Even vital medications for prisoners have been stopped by military medical personnel as additional pressure to break the hunger strike.
Those military doctors and nurses tell us that they are simply obeying orders from the colonel in charge of detention operations, as though that officer were a doctor or as if doctors had to follow his orders rather than their medical ethics or the law.
But they must know that what they are doing is wrong, else they would not have removed the nametags with their pseudonyms or numbers. They don’t want to be identifiable in any way, for fear of being held accountable someday by their profession or the world.
I spend the rest of my time in my solitary confinement cell, on 22-hour lockdown. The authorities have deprived us of the most basic necessities. No toothbrushes, toothpaste, blankets, soap or towels are allowed in our cells. If you ask to go to the shower, the guards refuse. They bang on our doors at night, depriving us of sleep.
They have also instituted a humiliating genital search policy. I asked a guard why. He answered: “So you don’t come out to your meetings and calls with your lawyers and give them information to use against us.”
But the prisoners’ weights are as low as their spirits are high. Every man I know here is determined to remain on hunger strike until the US government begins releasing prisoners.
Those of you on the outside might find that difficult to comprehend. My family certainly does. If I’m lucky, I’m allowed four calls with them each year. My mother spent most of my most recent call pleading with me to stop my hunger strike. I had only this to say in response: “Mom, I have no choice.” It is the only way I have left to cry out for life, freedom and dignity.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
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What point is there in the torture of these most likely innocent prisoners?
A very good question, Thomas, and one that strikes to the heart of the problem. The men on hunger strike are not terrorists, but they are relentlessly portrayed as such by supporters of Guantanamo, in prominent positions in Congress and the media. They are either innocent men, caught on the wrong place at the wrong time, or they had been fighting with, or were otherwise involved with the Taliban, in a now distant conflict in 2001-02. For them still to be held, and subjected to force-feeding when they engage in a hunger strike to protest about their ongoing, and seemingly endless imprisonment, is a damning indictment of America’s failure to uphold any of the notions of justice to which it claims to adhere.
J.d. Gordon wrote:
Thanks for sharing, Andy. Moath al-Alwi certainly remains hardcore, and committed to the cause. Here’s a link to NY Times Project File which discusses such commitment. A Bin Laden Bodyguard, veteran jihadist, fought US & Coalition forces @ Tora Bora, and captured while crossing into Pakistan on 15 DEC 2001 after Al Qaeda was driven from the White Mountains stronghold.
J.d., just because you read it in a military file from Guantanamo doesn’t make it true. Haven’t you heard that the “bin Laden bodyguard” allegations are nonsense, and that OBL had older bodyguards – often Egyptians – and veterans of the war against Russia in the 1980s, not people like al-Alwi who was in Afghanistan for a matter of months. This supposed “veteran jihadist” was 24 years old when captured, and had been in Afghanistan with the Taliban, involved in their inter-Muslim conflict against the Northern Alliance, when 9/11 happened. He, like many others, then discovered that they were at war with the US. At most, he and the majority of the prisoners still held were soldiers, nothing more, and should have been freed when the Taliban were overthrown – in 2002, or in 2004 when Karzai became President.
David Knopfler wrote:
I’m not a lawyer but I’d say “Hardcore and committed to the cause” is an allegation, not a conviction… whatever “the cause” might be… It changes nothing of the basic premise that basic habeas corpus aught to apply that someone should be presumed innocent unless tried in a court of law and found guilty of a crime. International Law has no category for the inventive term “unlawful combatants” and even Tony Blair as early as 2006 said GTMO was an “anomaly” that would have to be “dealt with.” It still hasn’t been “dealt with” and it’s plainly in the national interest of the US that it is “dealt with” asap. Detention, by definition, is supposed to to be of limited duration until due process can be applied. Internment for a period of time that exceeds the time some proven murderers spend doing porridge is not anyone’s idea of justice. High time for the ever cheery Commissioner Gordon to turn on the bat spotlight and get something done?
Thanks, David, for highlighting the revulsion that all civilized people should feel for internment without charge or trial. I agree about trials – for those accused of crimes – but in the “anomaly” that Tony Blair identified in a rare moment of truth-telling, the majority of the men are either civilians (seized by mistake or bought) or soldiers. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to hold people seized in wartime unmolested until the end of hostilities, but that’s not whats been happening for the last 11 years and 9 months, and what we usually get is hogwash about “terrorists,” when these men were never terrorists at all. Here’s the Washington Post on how the end of hostilities in Afghanistan next year ought to be extremely significant for those wishing to see Guantanamo closed: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/afghan-wars-approaching-end-throws-legal-status-of-guantanamo-detainees-into-doubt/2013/10/18/758be516-2d0a-11e3-97a3-ff2758228523_story.html
David Knopfler wrote:
Andy… but how can hostilities ever end in an endless war against an abstract noun? Halliburton, Lockheed Martin and other Government contractors require endless refills for their shareholder’s bottom line. The whole grisly business is as surreal as the moment in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 when Milo Mindbender is baffled as to why anyone should be mad at him when he does a deal with the Germans who take his cotton in return for allowing the US runway to be bombed.
Yes, exactly, David. What’s happened, however, is that we haven’t even been able to make that argument yet about how it’s not possible to have an endless war. The troop drawdown in 2014 should enable that argument to begin in earnest, but it’s obvious that the Republicans – and some Democrats – don’t care, and won’t be convinced by any arguments that involve freeing anyone from Guantanamo or getting the wretched place closed down.
As for the corporate profits behind the endless phony war, yes, that’s what far too many people aren’t seeing, and the modern-day war profiteering, which requires a state of endless war to maximize shareholder returns, is matched by its evil counterparts in so many of the other corporations who dominate other fields – like the food industry, for example, where Monsanto is like Lockheed Martin or Halliburton, or the vultures infiltrating the NHS, or whoever’s about to destroy the Royal Mail.
The list goes on, and no easy solution is forthcoming. Where are the mass political movements of the people, for the people? Is such a thing possible, or are those benefitting from all this unfettered capitalism numerous enough to ensure that the whole sordid business of enriching the already rich and valuing nothing in society apart from profits – regardless of the moral cost, the social cost, or the environmental cost – continues to be the only game in town?
David Knopfler wrote:
I share your feelings Andy – and these are certainly all the right questions. When FDR made his reforms he said in effect to the Union Leaders…and I paraphrase.. ” I agree with you – now make me do it.” He understood only too well that rhetoric and principles (as Obama has aplenty) count for little in the world of real-politic. Mass actions seem to be the only actions that assist the 99%.
Yes indeed, David, and so difficult to achieve, sadly. Now, for example, we get the Royal Mail sell-off, which most people didn’t approve of, but which was supported by enough people for David Cameron to cite is as evidence of an appetite for Thatcher-style “popular capitalism”. It’s like the worst of the 80s al over again – my fellow citizens getting a few hundred quid for taking part in the sell-off of the family silver. And then, down the line, no one seems to notice how their few hundred quid is no compensation for a more expensive, and more inefficient system.
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