By Andy Worthington
On March 14, 2013, 51 attorneys for prisoners at Guantánamo wrote to defense secretary Chuck Hagel to express "urgent and grave concern" about the mass hunger strike that has been taking place at the prison for the last five weeks, involving over a hundred of the 166 men still held -- and to urge him "to address the underlying causes of the strike and bring it to a prompt and acceptable end."
On March 4, some of the attorneys previously wrote to Rear Adm. John W. Smith, Jr., the Commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, and Capt. Thomas J. Welsh, the Staff Judge Advocate, reporting "information received from clients about the hunger strike and its effects on the men." Although they requested an answer to their letter, no response was received, and in the meantime, as they explained in their letter to Chuck Hagel, "we have received additional reports from clients that the strike is ongoing and that the health of the men has continued to deteriorate in alarming and potentially irreparable ways."
As the lawyers proceeded to explain, "we understand that the hunger strike was precipitated by widespread searches of detainees’ Qur’ans -- perceived as religious desecration -- as well as searches and confiscation of other personal items, including family letters and photographs, and legal mail, seemingly without provocation or cause. We also understand that these searches occurred against a background of increasingly regressive practices at the prison taking place in recent months, which our clients have described as a return to an older regime at Guantánamo that was widely identified with the mistreatment of detainees. Indeed, the conditions being reported by the men appear to be a significant departure from the way in which the prison has operated over the past several years."
In addition, of course, the majority of the prisoners have lost hope that they will ever be released. Despite promising to close the prison on taking office over four years ago, President Obama gave in to cynical Congressional opposition to the release of prisoners, after releasing just 71 men, and also imposed his own unacceptable ban on releasing any Yemeni prisoners after a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, recruited in Yemen, tried and failed to blow up a plane on Christmas Day 2009.
Of the 166 men still held, 86 were cleared for release at least three years ago by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force -- and some were previously cleared for release by President Bush, between 2004 and 2007. Two-thirds of these men are Yemenis, and, by banning their release, President Obama not only consigned them to indefinite detention on the basis of their nationality alone; he also made a mockery of the official process through which they had been approved for transfer.
In addition, 46 men were designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial, in a disgraceful executive order issued by President Obama two years ago. This was disgraceful because it saw President Obama -- the man who promised to close Guantánamo -- instead authorizing indefinite detention without charge or trial, on the basis that these particular men were too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. In fact, this so-called evidence is deeply problematical, having been extracted through torture or other forms of abuse, and/or having been produced by deeply unreliable witnesses. The only concession to critics was Obama's promise that there would be periodic reviews of the men's cases. However, it was revealed in December that these reviews have not taken place.
Explaining more about the hunger strike, the attorneys wrote, "We understand that most of the men in Camp 6, which holds the largest number of detainees at Guantánamo, have been on hunger strike since February 6 to protest these practices. We have also received alarming reports of detainees’ deteriorating health, including that men have lost over 20 and 30 pounds, and that at least two dozen men have lost consciousness due to low blood glucose levels, which have dropped to life-threatening levels among some. The information we have reported has been corroborated by every attorney who has visited the base or communicated with their client since February."
They added, "According to medical experts, irreversible cognitive impairment and physiological damage such as loss of hearing, blindness, and hemorrhage may begin to occur by the 40th day of a hunger strike, and death follows thereafter. We would think officials charged with the care of detainees would consider these events urgent and gravely concerning; instead, JTF-GTMO officials have yet to offer any response other than to brush aside the reports by detainee counsel as 'falsehoods.'"
This is a disgrace, of course -- and especially so because the authorities refuse to accept that it is taking place. As Carol Rosenberg reported for the Miami Herald, March 15 was "the first admission of a protest" acknowledged by the authorities, although it did not go far enough. Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the prison authorities, denied “a widespread phenomenon, as alleged,” but he conceded, "for the first time after weeks of denial," as Rosenberg put it, "that the number had surged to 14 from the five or six detainees who had for years been considered hunger strikers among the 166 captives at Guantánamo."
He added that one prisoner was in the hospital on Friday, and, as as Rosenberg put it, that five others "were being fed elsewhere through tubes tethered through their noses into their stomachs." Eight others "had not yet been sufficiently malnourished to merit tube feedings but had shunned enough consecutive meals and lost enough weight to meet the Pentagon’s Guantánamo definition of a hunger striker."
The gulf between the prisoners' statements and the government's position is still immense however, and unfortunately the government has a terrible reputation for hiding the truth about Guantánamo -- including last September, when Adnan Latif, a Yemeni, and a cleared prisoner with mental health problems, died at the prison in circumstances that have not been adequately explained.
In their letter to Chuck Hagel, the attorneys for the prisoners reminded the new defense secretary that, "As a United States Senator, you took the position that mistreatment of prisoners at Guantánamo could not be tolerated because it was immoral and because it jeopardized the security of the United States." They added, "You also argued that the continued existence of the prison was one of the reasons why the United States was 'losing the image war around the world.'"
Words can mean nothing, of course, as we know from the example provided by President Obama, but the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo does not go away by being ignored.
If men are not to die as a result of the hunger strike, senior officials need to act, and they need to act quickly. Pretending there are not fundamental, deep-seated and unacceptable problems at Guantánamo is not the way to do it. Cleared prisoners need freeing, and they need freeing now.