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6 facts you should know about the Guantanamo Bay hunger strike

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The Guantanamo Bay prison camp (Photo via Reuters)

The hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay continues to grow. The U.S. recently forced many prisoners into solitary confinement. The military now admits that 100 prisoners at the camp are refusing to eat. But lawyers for Guantanamo detainees say that more than 130 detainees are on hunger strike.

While the claims and counter-claims bounce back and forth, the situation continues to deteriorate. Here’s 6 facts you should know about Guantanamo Bay and the ongoing act of protest most of the prisoners are participating in.

1. U.S. Medical Reinforcements Have Arrived to Force-Feed Prisoners

One of the latest news items is that “medical reinforcements” from the U.S. Navy have arrived at Guantanamo Bay to cope with the growing hunger strike. The Naval nurses and specialists are there to help facilitate the process of force-feeding the detainees.

“We will not allow a detainee to starve themselves to death, and we will continue to treat each person humanely,” Guantanamo prison spokesman Samuel House told the New York Times. But the practice of force-feeding has been criticized by human rights groups.

When detainees are force-fed, they are shackled to a “restraint chair.” Then, U.S. military officials force a tube into their nose to pump nutrients into their body. The American Medical Association has come out strongly against the practice. “Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions,” AMA President Jeremy Lazarus wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Miami Herald reports.

In a harrowing New York Times Op-Ed, Guantanamo prisoner Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel described the process of force-feeding. “I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up,” he wrote. “I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.”

2. Hunger Strike Sparked By Raids, Fueled By Indefinite Detention

Detainees began the hunger strike in early February after they said personnel at the camp raided cells, confiscated personal items and treated the Qu’ran disrespectfully. The military disputes this narrative. But what is clear is that, as the New York Times reported, the strike is being driven by “a growing sense among many prisoners, some of whom have been held without trial for more than 11 years, that they will never go home.”

“The men are not starving themselves so they can become martyrs…They’re doing this because they’re desperate. They’re desperate to be free from Guantanamo. They don’t see any alternative to leaving in a coffin. That’s the bottom line,” Wells Dixon, an attorney for five Guantamano detainees, told AlterNet earlier this month.

3. 86 Detainees Have Been Cleared for Release–But They’re Still There

There are currently 166 detainees at Guantanamo. And over half of them–86–have been cleared for release out of the hellish prison camp. But they’re still there, a fact that is helping to drive the hunger strike.

The U.S. government has effectively put release efforts on hold. The last time a prisoner left Guantanamo was September 2012. Part of the problem is that 56 of the cleared men are from Yemen, a strong U.S. ally that also has a problem with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that has plotted attacks against the U.S. After a 2009 terrorist plot that purportedly originated in Yemen was halted, the Obama administration decided to halt repatriation of detainees to Yemen.

Now, there is renewed pressure to continue transferring detainees to Yemen. Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to Obama in which she said: “I believe it would be prudent to re-visit the decision to halt transfers to Yemen and assess whether President Hadi’s government, with appropriate assistance, would be able to securely hold detainees in Sana’a.”

4. Obama Can Help Change the Situation

At a press conference today, President Obama vowed to redouble his efforts to close Guantanamo. He also noted that Congress had interfered with his ability to close the prison camp. This has a lot of truth to it, though it was Obama that signed the bills that restricted his maneuvering ability on Guantanamo.

But there is a mechanism that he can use right now: asking the Secretary of Defense to sign off on the release of detainees by using what’s called a national security waiver. It’s true, as Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer notes, that the waiver includes a provision that requires certifying that the detainee cleared for release “won’t ever pose a threat in the future, which is ultimately not something the administration can control.” Still, human rights advocates say the time has come to use the waivers, since leaving innocent people there forever is untenable.

5. Clashes at Camps

Clashes have broken out at the camp both before and after the start of the hunger strike. On January 2, a non-lethal bullet hit the throat of an Afghan detainee. The military spokesperson told Truthout’s Jason Leopold that the incident started when a detainee climbed a fence and other prisoners began throwing rocks at a guard tower.

But a prisoner had a different account, which was relayed through his lawyer David Remes. “Detainee started shaking door (very common),” the Yemeni prisoner Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, told Remes, according to Leopold’s reporting. “Guard in tower pointed rifle at him. Brothers in yard started shouting. Guard swung around with his rifle and started shooting at them – just one bullet, which hit a detainee in the throat.”

Another intense clash between prisoners and guards occurred in mid-April. They broke out as guards moved the prisoners into solitary cells, a break from the communal atmosphere the prisoners were living in. Prison guards fired a few “less than lethal” rounds at the prisoners, who were reportedly wielding “improvised weapons.”

6. Torture Was Endemic

While Obama has failed to successfully shutter the prison, he did end the most brutal forms of interrogation practiced there, though some human rights groups say the current force-feeding is a form of torture. Still, the Bush administration’s torture program is no longer employed on prisoners there.

But when the prison was first opened, the torture of detainees at Guantanamo was widespread. This torture was characterized by psychological abuse, sleep deprivation, sound and light manipulation, and physical beatings.

Slate magazine has a sharp reminder of this illegal and inhumane treatment. The news outlet has published the memoirs of Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He has been locked up there for 11 years, despite the fact that in 2010 a judge ordered his release. Slahi’s brutal interrogation was personally signed off on by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The U.S. questioned him on his associations with known terrorists, but the U.S. never found Slahi to have been involved with a specific plot. Slahi described one aspect of his torture here:

The cell—better, the box—was cooled down so that I was shaking most of the time. I was forbidden from seeing the light of the day. Every once in a while they gave me a rec time in the night to keep me from seeing or interacting with any detainees. I was living literally in terror. I don’t remember having slept one night quietly; for the next 70 days to come I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping. Interrogation for 24 hours, three and sometimes four shifts a day. I rarely got a day off

Slahi also endured a mock rendition, where U.S. military personnel, as well as what sounded like Egyptian and Jordanian security officials, threatened to bring him to Egypt to be tortured. He wrote about this experience as well: “Suddenly a commando team of three soldiers and a German shepherd broke into our interrogation room. [ Redacted] punched me violently, which made me fall face down on the floor, and the second guy kept punching me everywhere, mainly on my face and my ribs. Both were masked from head to toe.” Slahi was then put on a boat.

“Inside the boat, [ redacted] made me drink salt water, I believe it was direct from the ocean. It was so nasty I threw it up. They put an object in my mouth and shouted, ‘Swallow, motherfucker!’ I decided inside not to swallow the organ-damaging salt water, which choked me as they kept pouring the water in my mouth.”

This article originally appeared in AlterNet.

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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5 Responses

  1. pabelmont on May 1, 2013, 7:35 am

    What an awful story, Alex. Thanks for helping to make these things public.
    “He has been locked up there for 11 years, despite the fact that in 2010 a judge ordered his release.” This quote means that, like Israel, the GoUS ignores the orders of its judges — just as it ignores the human rights of prisoners it has no right (and not much interest) in continuing to hold.

    Have the 86 prisoners who could be released to Yemen been asked WHERE they’d like to be released to? If they have a well-founded fear of unlawful imprisonment in their home country (Yemen), perhaps they’d like to be released within America or elsewhere in the Middle East. they shoukld eb ASKED. As asylum from Guantanamo and from USA-connected Yemen.

  2. eljay on May 1, 2013, 10:14 am

    Gitmo is an absolute disgrace to Western “civilized” society, and to “Land of Freedom” Amurrika in particular. It must be shut down, and the people who authorized it, maintained it and indulged in barbaric practices within its gates must be held accountable.

    The fact that Israel also uses torture, or that Amurrika is not as bad as Saudi Arabia or Mali, is not a valid excuse.

  3. kalithea on May 2, 2013, 1:37 am

    Hell exists and it’s U.S. made. The dark side of America.

  4. yourstruly on May 2, 2013, 10:28 am

    yesterday president obama said he wouldn’t allow guantanamo prisoners to die of starvation.

    a humanitarian gesture, some will say.

    nonsense, he’s afraid what their martyrdom will do to america’s image.

    meanwhile he’s approving drone strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians, a form of murder that the pentagon refers to as collateral damage.

  5. annie on May 3, 2013, 2:15 am

    this is horrendous. god, it’s hard to know how to react. what hell our government has created. what shame.

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