When is a hunger strike not a hunger strike? Apparently, when the government says it doesn’t exist.
At Guantánamo, reports first began to emerge on February 23 about a campwide hunger strike of a scale not seen since before Barack Obama became president. On the “Free Fayiz and Fawzi” page on Facebook, run by lawyers for Fayiz al-Kandari and Fawzi al-Odah, the last two Kuwaitis in the prison, the following message appeared: “Information is beginning to come out about a hunger strike, the size of which has not been seen since 2008. Preliminary word is that it’s due to unprecedented searches and a new guard force.”
Fayiz al-Kandari’s team of military lawyers arrived at the prison on February 25 and the day after announced, “Fayiz has lost more than twenty pounds and lacks the ability to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time due to a campwide hunger strike. Apparently there is a dispute over searches and the confiscations. We believe there is a desperation setting amongst the prisoners whereby GTMO is forgotten and its condemned men will never get an opportunity to prove their innocence or be free.”
On February 27, the team reported, “Today, we had a communication with the Kuwait legal team concerning Fayiz and Fawzi’s physical condition in GTMO. It is difficult meeting with a man who has not eaten in almost three weeks, but we are scheduled for an all-day session tomorrow which we are sure Fayiz will not be able to complete due [to] his failing physical condition. Additionally, we learned that our other client Abdul Ghani, [an Afghan] who has been cleared for release since 2010, is also on a hunger strike. Eleven years without an opportunity to defend themselves.”
On February 28, the lawyers confirmed that Fayiz al-Kandari’s weight loss over the previous three and a half weeks had reached 26 pounds (12 kg), and on March 5, after meeting their client, they reported that he had said that the hunger strike “certainly hurts physically,” but he felt “very sorry for his parents whose psychological pain is ten times greater than his physical discomfort.”
While that last comment showed great concern for others, no one aware of the situation at Guantánamo would begrudge the men still held, dwelling on their own position and concluding that a hunger strike is the only way to try and draw attention to their plight. Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, al-Kandari’s military lawyer, told FireDogLake that “there is a growing feeling here that death is the road out of GTMO.”
Death has indeed been the way out for three of the last seven prisoners to leave the prison — two who died in 2011, and one, Adnan Latif, a Yemeni, who died last September, despite having been repeatedly cleared for release from the prison.
Despair is entirely appropriate at Guantánamo for the 166 men still held, because, although 86 of them were cleared for release at least three years ago by the interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force established by Obama (and although some were cleared for release under George W. Bush, between 2004 and 2007), they are still held because of Congressional obstruction and because of Obama’s refusal to make the case that holding men cleared for release is a disgrace.
Of the 80 others, 46 were recommended for indefinite detention without charge or trial by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, and the rest were recommended for trials. Two years ago, Obama issued an executive order formalizing the indefinite detention of those 46 men on the basis that they were too dangerous to be released, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. That too was disgraceful, as it attempted to create the illusion that a collection of unverifiable statements produced through the use of torture, other forms of coercion, or bribery could be regarded as something approximating evidence, when that is clearly not the case.
In an effort to placate critics, the president promised periodic reviews of these men’s cases in his executive order, although two years later no reviews have taken place at all, and a review board has not even been established. These men can, therefore, reasonably be expected to regard themselves as having been abandoned by the president at least as thoroughly as the 86 men cleared for release who are still held. Moreover, the majority of the rest of the prisoners — those recommended for trials — are also effectively being detained forever without any kind of review process because, in recent months, the deeply conservative court of appeals in Washington, D.C., has ruled that two of the key charges in the military commission trial system first established under Bush against Guantánamo prisoners were not regarded as war crimes when the trial system was established. It has accordingly thrown out the convictions against two men tried in 2008.
On March 4, lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and others representing prisoners at Guantánamo, sent a letter to Rear Adm. John W. Smith Jr., the Commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, adding further information about the hunger strike. They stated that “through reports by several detainees to their counsel,” they understood that “conditions in the camps have worsened to the point that all but a few men have now gone on a hunger strike in protest.” They further explained that they had been informed that “since approximately February 6, 2013, camp authorities have been confiscating detainees’ personal items, including blankets, sheets, towels, mats, razors, toothbrushes, books, family photos, religious CDs, and letters, including legal mail, and restricting their exercise, seemingly without provocation or cause.”
They added, “Moreover, we understand that Arabic interpreters employed by the prison have been searching the men’s Qur’ans in ways that constitute desecration according to their religious beliefs, and that guards have been disrespectful during prayer times. These actions, and the fact that they have affected so many men, indicate a significant departure from the way in which the rules have been formulated and implemented over the past few years.”
The lawyers also explained that as the men’s health has deteriorated, they had received reports of their clients “coughing up blood, being hospitalized, losing consciousness, becoming weak and fatigued, and being moved to Camp V [a maximum-security block] for observation,” as well as reports that the men are “feeling increased stress, fear, and despair.”
The lawyers requested that the commander “take immediate measures to bring [to] an end this potentially life-threatening situation in the camps by addressing the reasons that give rise to it.” They also noted, “The practices occurring today threaten to turn back the clock to the worst moments of Guantánamo’s history and return the prison to conditions that caused great suffering to our clients and were condemned by the public at large. If prior experience serves as any guide, the current practices risk dire consequences and will only invite outside scrutiny.”
In response, as I mentioned at the start of this article, the prison authorities claimed that there is no widespread hunger strike. As Carol Rosenberg reported for the Miami Herald, Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the prison’s public affairs officer, said that only “six of the 166 captives at the base had missed enough consecutive meals to be classified as hunger strikers,” and that five of them “were being fed through tubes.”
David Remes, who represents a number of Yemeni prisoners, disputed the authorities’ claims. He said that on Monday he met with a Yemeni client, Hussein Almerfedi, who “hadn’t eaten in 22 or 23 or 24 days” to protest the Qur’an searches, but “had not deteriorated sufficiently to be force fed.”
The mainstream media have begun to pick up the story, but it remains to be seen whether, in the current political climate, the situation at Guantánamo will be “condemned by the public at large,” as the lawyers stated with reference to the response to Guantánamo in Bush’s second term. Experience shows us that, sad to say, people no longer care sufficiently, and that Obama shares that indifference. I hope that I am wrong and that indignation once more becomes fashionable with reference to Guantánamo. Certainly the men who are still held deserve to have their complaints noticed, and if a hunger strike is the way to do it, then so be it.
After all, these are men whose situation ought to alarm and appall all Americans. Under Obama, who promised to close the prison, some are, instead, held indefinitely despite having been cleared for release. Others have been officially designated for indefinite detention and are then denied the reviews they were promised. Still others were recommended for trials that even the most conservative judges in Washington, D.C., regard as inadequate.
None of that is fair or just, and after eleven years, and with no end in sight, it is time for concrete steps to be taken to close Guantánamo once and for all.