Within the past month, more than 15 Guantanamo detainees protested an indefinite detention order signed by President Barack Obama in March that resulted in their relocation to another camp at the prison facility – where they said the conditions are worse – by staging a hunger strike, Truthout has learned.
Tanya Bradsher, a Department of Defense (DoD) spokeswoman, confirmed detainees staged a hunger strike, but she put the number at “less than ten.”
However, Guantanamo guards said the hunger strike, which started around the first week of March and ended a little more than a week ago, also involved some of the 14 high-value detainees who are segregated and housed in Camp 7. Their actions are considered classified and would otherwise not be confirmed by the Pentagon, the guards said.
Bradsher said, “Detainees will hunger strike for various reasons, but most consider it a way to 'stay in the fight,'” a line of reasoning that serves to perpetuate the myth peddled by the Bush administration that all of the individuals imprisoned at Guantanamo are the “worst of the worst.”
The DoD's own files on the detainees released by WikiLeaks last Sunday showed that a vast majority of them were innocent and were sold to the US as bounty.
Far from being an effort to “stay in the fight,” the hunger strike detainees waged was simply a way for them to protest the conditions of their confinement and the executive order signed by Obama creating a formal system of indefinite detention.
Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, who represents Kuwaiti detainee Fayiz al-Kandari, one of the ten who spent the past month fasting, said his client was on a hunger strike, “due to the fact that he was forced to move [to a new camp] where the rules are more stringently enforced.”
Wingard said al-Kandari, whose petition for habeas corpus was rejected last year, went from 150 to 130 pounds during the hunger strike.
Another Kuwaiti detainee, Fouzi Khalid Abdullah Al Awda, lost 25 pounds during the hunger strike, according to accounts other detainees gave to their lawyers.
Detainees who refuse nine consecutive meals are classified as hunger strikers. It's unclear if any of the detainees were force-fed by Guantanamo medical personnel, a procedure that in and of itself has been described as torture. Bradsher did not respond to specific questions about force-feeding. Wingard said al-Kandari was able to avoid being force-fed by earning “points” and eating a piece of fruit, for example. Al Awda, the other Kuwaiti detainee, was said to have taken the hunger strike seriously, avoided all food and fainted several times.
Guantanamo force-feeding kit. (Source: Pentagon/Wikimedia)
Bradsher cited a DoD report that said if military personnel had to resort to force-feeding detainees, the process would be administered in a “lawful” and humane manner.”
Human rights groups, however, would beg to differ.
In January 2009, Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Human Rights Program, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates calling for an end to the Pentagon's force-feeding policy, which requires guards and medical personnel to strap a detainee into a chair and secure his head to a metal restraint. The letter was prompted by reports that about 25 to 30 detainees waged a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention.
Dakwar said, “force-feeding is universally considered to be a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and cited a 2006 United Nations report that said the manner in which detainees are force-fed, “are matters of grave and distinct human rights concerns.”
According to the 2009 DoD report, entitled “Review of Department Compliance With President's Executive Order on Detainee Conditions of Confinement, “The current feeding program is being conducted solely as a medical procedure to sustain the life and health of hunger strikers.”
The force-feeding policy parallels the Federal Bureau of Prisons policy and has been upheld by federal courts. The 81-page report describes how detaineed are force-fed and says it is considered “a medical procedure with the sole purpose of preserving life and health, and in accordance with Common Article 3 and DoD policy.”
Enteral feeding is the process of providing nutritional support for a patient by passing a tube through the nose into the stomach (a nasogastric feeding tube), through which nutritional supplements, such as Ensure Plus or Boost Plus, can be infused. This is a common medical procedure used to safely provide nutrition to a patient who is not taking food by mouth, but whose intestinal function is intact (e.g., a patient whose jaw is wired shut). The nasogastric tube used is size 10 or 12 French, which would be 3.5-4.5 millimeters in diameter (slightly larger in diameter than a piece of cooked spaghetti but less than a pencil eraser). The tube should be well lubricated (viscous lidocaine should be offered, but some patients prefer other lubricants). After insertion of the tube, its placement in the stomach is confirmed prior to allowing the nutritional supplement to flow in from a hanging bag by gravity. This procedure usually takes about an hour, after which the feeding tube is removed. Once stabilized, most patients can be sustained on two feedings per day.
The DoD report was based on a two-week investigation of conditions at Guantanamo, which was conducted “to ensure all detainees there are being held 'in conformity with all applicable laws governing the conditions of confinement, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions,' pursuant to the President’s Executive Order on Review and Disposition of Individuals Detained at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and Closure of Detention Facilities, dated January 22, 2009.”
The review concluded that the “conditions of confinement at Guantanamo” were in compliance with Common Article 3 of Geneva.
Stripped of Privileges
For people who take for granted the small luxuries in life, the complaints raised by the detainees that led them to stop eating may seem trivial and petty. But the little things are all these detainees have left to hold on to.
A majority of the detainees who staged the hunger strike had been housed at Camp 1 since at least 2008 and had become accustomed to certain living conditions, such as keeping their cell doors open while they prayed, having meals prepared with at least a minimum amount of care and being treated with some respect by the military guards.
Camp 1 closed down, but a single cell block remained open to accommodate ten detainees who spoke English, were well-educated and whom the DoD had segregated because the agency believed they were “troublemakers” and an “influence” on other Guantanamo prisoners, according to several Guantanamo guards.
The detainees who remained at Camp 1 included UK resident Shaker Aamer, an “enemy combatant” who has been imprisoned at Guantanamo since 2002 without charge and was brutally tortured and placed in solitary confinement for at least a year, according to an account he provided to one of his attorneys who repeated the statements in a sworn declaration released by the DoD in 2006.
An assessment on Aamer prepared by a military analyst in November 2007 and released last weekend by WikiLeaks portrays the man the government claims was a close associate of Osama bin Laden as a mythical figure. The military assessment, the veracity of which is questionable, states that Aamer controls other detainees, has the power to call on detainees to commit suicide, is “extremely egotistical,” “manipulated debriefers and guard staff” and, on the advice of his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, led a hunger strike in 2005 involving more than 100 detainees. Smith has vehemently denied the assertion and took to Twitter to ridicule the allegaiton.
Aamer did not participate in the hunger strike that began in early March and ended about a week ago, according to two Guantanamo guards currently stationed at the prison who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The circumstances behind the hunger strike unfolded in January and February, weeks before Obama issued his indefinite detention order, when Guantanamo officials began the process of permanently shuttering camps 4 and 1 and moved all of the detainees interned there to camps 5 and 6.
Candace Gorman, an attorney who represents an Algerian detainee named Abdal Razak Ali, noted on her blog on February 13 that in January, the military closed Camp 4, “the least restricted of the Guantanamo camps and moved all of the men to either camps 5 or 6. Both supermax facilities of the worst order.”
“The men know that this is just the latest sign that the Obama administration has no intention of closing Guantanamo,” wrote Gorman, whose client's petition for habeas corpus was recently denied by US District Court Judge Richard Leon.
In January, detainees at camps 5 and 6 marked the ninth anniversary of Guantanamo's opening by staging a “sit-in.”
“After seeing reports of the uprisings in Tunisia the men started their own protest by putting up signs everywhere they had access,” Gorman wrote. “Examples of some of the signs: 'where are the courts?' 'what about our rights?' 'where is democracy?' All very good questions.”
Guantanamo officials told the ten remaining detainees in Camp 1 in February that they were going to be moved to Camp 5.
“They were told [Camp 5] would be better,” said one Guantanamo guard. “They were told they could bring nonessential items they collected. But after they were transferred, those items were confiscated. They were essentially lied to. Overall, they just felt the living conditions were worse at Camp 5.”
Being relocated to a new camp meant the detainees were now under the purview of a new camp commander, new guards and new rules. That meant they had to start over as if they had just arrived at Guantanamo.
“The guards were not treating them well when they got to Camp 5,” said a military official knowledgeable about the detainees' relocation, who requested anonymity in order to speak openly about the issue. “The guards were a lot more rough on the new detainees. [The detainees] were restricted from going outside. Their mail was being opened. They asked that their food not be thrown together. This isn't how it was for them at Camp 1.”
The detainees protested, but they were ignored. So they stopped eating. The hunger strike lasted about a month.
A little more than a week ago, it came to an end after Guantanamo officials agreed to some of their requests, which included meals that were carefully prepared, additional recreation time and the ability to pray together.
Wingard said al-Kandari is still hoping for justice, despite the fact that he lost his habeas case and will likely spend the rest of his life in Guantanamo without charge.
He said the former aid worker told him that, “Back in the Bush days, they would torture us, but at least we had a shot at eventually being released. Now, with Obama, they beat us up psychologically and make sure you know that no one is ever going to leave Guantanamo.”