The Despair of Guantánamo’s Most Prominent Hunger Striker


Guantánamo’s most prominent hunger striker is Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a 43-year old Syrian prisoner, married with four children and long cleared for release, who is in a wheelchair as a result of his treatment in US custody, and has been on a hunger strike since last spring.

Others have been on a hunger strike for longer — one man has been refusing food since 2005, and others have been starving themselves since 2007 — but Mr. Dhiab is particularly well-known because, in May, a US judge — District Judge Gladys Kessler, in Washington D.C. — ordered the government to stop force-feeding him, and to preserve videotaped evidence of his force-feeding, and his “forcible cell extractions” (FCEs), when a team of armored guards drags him out of his cell to take him to be force-fed.

Soon after, Judge Kessler reluctantly dropped her ban on Mr. Dhiab’s force-feeding, fearing that otherwise he would die. However, she also ordered the government to release the videotapes to Mr. Dhiab’s lawyers, and, after seeing them, one of his legal team, Cori Crider of the legal action charity Reprieve, said that she “had trouble sleeping after viewing them.”

16 major US news organizations subsequently submitted a motion calling for the videotapes to be made public — as did Mr. Dhiab’s wife. No decision has yet been taken on that motion, but in the meantime Judge Kessler ordered the authorities at Guantánamo to allow two independent doctors to visit the prison to evaluate Mr. Dhiab’s health.

With all this pressure on the government, it would have made sense for Mr. Dhiab to be released, to bring his legal challenges to an end, but although President Mujica of Uruguay agreed to offer new homes to Mr. Dhiab and five other cleared prisoners who cannot be safely repatriated in March this year, they are still held.

In July, the Pentagon told Congress it intended to release Mr. Dhiab and the five other men, giving lawmakers 30 days’ notice, as required in the legislation passed by Congress to make it difficult to release men from Guantánamo. However, the deal has been delayed. Earlier this week, Ben Fox of the Associated Press reported that Diego Canepa, a spokesman for President Mujica, recently stated that “aspects of the transfer were still being finalized and that it would be unlikely within the next two to three months,” which “would put it past Uruguay’s Oct. 26 presidential and legislative elections, and perhaps even a possible Nov. 30 runoff.”

Fox noted that the US government said that the transfer of Dhiab and the other men was “still going to happen.” Ian Moss, an adviser to Cliff Sloan, the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure at the State Department, said, “We are very appreciative of Uruguay’s decision to resettle these individuals. It truly is a significant humanitarian gesture.”

Ben Fox also spoke to Alka Pradhan, one of his lawyers at Reprieve, about his current condition. After 18 months on a hunger strike, he weighs just 155 pounds, and Pradhan described him as “pale and weak,” and “so lethargic at times” that “he had to lie on the floor when he met with her one day this summer” at the prison. “Everyone who has seen him recently is alarmed,” she said, adding that “he has only eaten parts of a meal or a nutritional supplement to avoid the ‘forcible cell extraction,’ to which he has been subjected 48 times so far this year.”

According to a recently submitted affidavit from Army Col. David Heath, the new commander of the guard force at Guantánamo (known as the Joint Detention Group), since April Mr. Dhiab “has physically assaulted troops three times and twice used vomit and feces to attack them,” and has also “threatened to kill guards.” As Ben Fox put it, Col. Heath stated that he is “considered to pose such a danger that officials opposed allowing him to be unshackled” when, two weeks ago, the doctors hired by his legal team visited the prison to assess his health.

“Given his recent behavior, the risk is unacceptable that Mr. Dhiab would take advantage of the opportunity presented by being completely unrestrained … to further commit harmful acts that endanger the guards, the medical consultants or himself,” Col. Heath stated, in the affidavit submitted on August 26.

In the Associated Press article, Alka Pradhan responded to Col. Heath’s claims by stating that she “expects his hunger strike will continue.” She said, “He is so desperate to see his family and see his kids,” adding, “He really doesn’t want to die. But you can understand him not wanting to end his hunger strike until he’s actually on a plane.”

I can also understand that Mr. Dhiab’s despair is such that he has occasionally resorted to lashing out at those who are oppressing him and force-feeding him, but the authorities at Guantánamo remain so insensitive that they refuse to accept what despair can do to a man who continues to be held indefinitely without charge or trial, even though he has been told repeatedly that he will be freed.

I sincerely hope that the Uruguay deal will not be subjected to further delays, and that Mr. Dhiab will soon be free to be reunited with his wife and children, who currently live in Turkey. It is time for his horrendously long ordeal to come to an end.

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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4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Shaheen Ahmed wrote:

    Inhumane of the US government

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it certainly is, Shaheen. It’s depressing that anyone is being force-fed, but inexplicable that it is considered somehow acceptable that men who have been approved for release but are still held should be force-fed because they are in despair about ever being freed and have embarked on hunger strikes as a result.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Elena Sante wrote:

    Lord let the people go. Uruguay president Pepe Mujica has offered them a safe haven.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Elena. Yes, let them go. We’ve been hearing recently that the offer from President Mujica – to take in six men who have long been approved for release but cannot be safely repatriated – is on hold because of fears about its timing and support in Uruguay. I wrote about that here:
    However, the most recent reports are saying that it’s still very much on the cards, and I hope that’s true. On September 13, South American media reported that “Uruguay will soon be welcoming six detainees from the prison”:
    The Huffington Post reported that Mujica “argued that accepting the prisoners wouldn’t undermine Uruguayan security,” and said, “We have to have total confidence that we’re not bringing ourselves a security problem, but rather refugees from the brutalities committed in war.”
    His wife, the First Lady of Uruguay, Sen. Lucia Topolansky, offered stronger words about Guantanamo in an interview with the Uruguayan newspaper La República on Sunday. “I don’t call them prisoners,” she said. “Because they’ve been kidnapped. They don’t have trials. They don’t have lawsuits. They don’t have charges.” She added that, when the prison at Guantanamo is empty, the US should “return the territory to Cuba, which is who it should belong to.”

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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