Torturing hunger strikers at Guantánamo

April 1, 2013

The hunger strike involving dozens of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay is a desperate protest against the atrocious conditions they face, writes Nicole Colson.

YOU WON'T hear much about it from the mainstream media, but detainees at the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay have been on hunger strike for weeks--and their U.S. captors, commanded by Barack Obama, have responded with brutal retaliation.

The hunger strike reportedly began February 6 and has grown to include more than 100 of the 166 prisoners at the U.S. camp, according to lawyers for the detainees. It was sparked by ongoing harsh treatment--for example, searches of cells that reportedly included the prisoners' Korans, considered a religious desecration--and the never-ending legal limbo that Guantánamo detainees find themselves in, more than a decade after the "war on terror" began.

Eighty-six of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay actually were cleared for release many years ago--but they remain imprisoned, either because the U.S. government prefers not to release them or because no agreement has been reached between the U.S. and a country to which they can be sent.

As the New Yorker's Amy Davidson commented, beyond those 86, "[t]here are dozens more whom the Administration has decided to just hold, even though it does not have enough evidence to charge them, supposedly on the grounds that they seem scary. Because of their pasts, or because of the embarrassment that the story of their time at Guantánamo might cause? Without a trial, who can say?"

The fence at the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay

According to lawyers for the detainees, the overwhelming majority of prisoners in Camps Five and Six--home to low-level detainees who are not facing any charges before a military commission--are on hunger strike. Camps Five and Six house the majority of prisoners at Guantánamo, but the military has officially acknowledged just 31 prisoners on hunger strike.

Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesperson for the military, complained to the New York Times that the strike was an "orchestrated event intended to garner media attention"--and almost seemed to expect sympathy for the jailors. "The hunger strikers have created an unfortunate situation with no clear path to resolution," he said. "They have presented no demands that we can meet."

Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who represents several detainees, told the New York Times that two of his clients--Moath Hamza Ahmed al-Alwi, who is held in Camp Six, and Mahmoud Faraj, who is held in Camp Five--have lost some 30 pounds each since the beginning of the hunger strike. According to Kassem, aside from several elderly prisoners, "no one is accepting food from prison authorities...Prisoners are not eating anything, surviving only on water."

Ohio public defender Carlos Warner, the lawyer for a Kuwaiti captive named Fayez al-Kandari, wrote in a recent letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that his client has lost 32 pounds. In an interview with CNN last week, Warner stated that conditions are dire and that U.S. officials "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...This is about frustration; this is about the Obama administration ignoring Guantánamo in every way, shape and form."

According to Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg, as the condition of hunger strikers in Camp Six worsens, they are being moved the maximum-security Camp 5, where they are housed in individual 8-by-12 cells and "where it's easier to conduct tube feedings."

The prisoners' Muslim cultural adviser told Rosenberg, "They are serious. They have lost hope."

BUT ACCORDING to plenty of voices in the U.S. media, the detainees have nothing to complain about.

Writing in Business Insider, Robert Johnson claimed that conditions at the camp are "absurdly good." He added that he couldn't believe the detainees' story because "[i]t's also hard to believe that guards, who already gripe about the difficulty of their assignment, would do anything that would make [detainees'] lives tougher."

Conditions, Johnson insisted, are akin to "resort treatment."

As left-wing commentator Glenn Greenwald replied in The Guardian: "Manipulating gullible, vapid, subservient 'journalists' to spout Potemkin Village propaganda like this, with military-arranged visits, is nothing new. It's been going on almost since the camp opened."

Among the many things that Johnson didn't witness, of course, are the force-feedings of at least 10 prisoners--those are the ones the U.S. will admit to. Force-feeding is a brutal process that has been used, in the past, to inflict pain as a deterrent to hunger strikes.

In 2005, Julia Tarver, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, described the force-feeding process after interviews with her clients:

Detainees were verbally abused and insulted and were restrained from head to toe. They had shackles or other restraints on their arms, legs, waist, chest, knees and head...With these restraints in place, they were given intravenous medication (often quite painfully, as inexperienced medical professionals seemed incapable of locating appropriate veins). Their arms were swollen from multiple attempts to stick them with IV needles...If detainees moved, they were hit in the chest/heart...

In front of Guantánamo physicians--including the head of the detainee hospital--the guards took [nasogastric] tubes from one detainee, and with no sanitization whatsoever, reinserted it into the nose of a different detainee. When these tubes were reinserted, the detainees could see the blood and stomach bile from other detainees remaining on the tubes.

Even more appalling are reports that the military is now denying hunger strikers access to drinking water. Detainees say that the water in the taps in their cells is not drinkable--and that the military has begun to deny them bottled water. Lawyers for the prisoners also say the military has turned up the air conditioning in cells. Military officials deny all these claims.

"The reality is that these men are slowly withering away, and we as a country need to take immediate action," Mari Newman, a human rights lawyer based in Denver, told the Associated Press.

Newman was among a group of attorneys that submitted a petition to a Washington court complaining of the harsh conditions last week. In it, the lawyers say the lack of drinkable water has "already caused some prisoners kidney, urinary and stomach problems"--in addition to the health effects of the hunger strike.

FOR ITS part, the Obama administration has refused to answer questions about the hunger strike--except to say, as White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest did last week, that the administration "remains committed to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay."

But according to the Miami Herald's Rosenberg, the Obama administration's failure to act on promises to close the prison camp may have added to the prisoners' frustrations. She writes that it was around the time of this year's inauguration that tensions at the camp began to mount:

Throughout Obama's first term, the one that started with a pledge to close Guantánamo's detention center by January 2010, Camp 6 was presented as a model POW-style prison--and the lockup for many of the captives cleared for release by a 2009 task force. Now, more than three years later, about 90 captives are cleared for release, but are still in Guantánamo because of a combination of congressional restrictions and no place to send them.

It's not only congressional restrictions. Obama's past plans to "close" the prison camp were nothing more than a scheme to relocate detainees to U.S. soil--while keeping indefinite detention in place. And throughout his presidency, Obama has remained silent about the punishing treatment prisoners have been subjected to. As Glenn Greenwald noted:

Whatever is true about the camp, the vast majority of those detainees have been kept in a cage for years--some more than a decade--without so much as having been charged with anything. They haven't seen their families in years. Ten prisoners have died at the camp, the latest one just four months ago under very suspicious circumstances (the military claims that the resort guest, despite all his luxurious amenities, committed suicide). At least half a dozen other resort guests have killed themselves, the latest being (if not the November 2012 death) in mid-2011.

For detainees with no end in sight to their captivity, the hunger strike is their last weapon. We shouldn't allow the Obama administration to evade responsibility.

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