Abdulsalam Al-Hela does not understand why he and other Guantanamo prisoners reside in a perpetual state of legal limbo.
“Can it really be true that US, with all its power, all over the world, can’t solve the problems of 100 men?” he asked his attorney, David Remes, during a meeting in early March.
“Yes,” Remes told the Yemeni prisoner. “It’s true.”
No one knows what to do with these living artifacts of a post-9/11 world.
Some are waiting to stand trial for war crimes. Others – more than half – have been cleared by the US government to be returned to their homelands or other countries. All watch the days, weeks, months and years slip by without resolution, regardless of status.
Al-Hela, who has been detained without charge or trial for nearly a decade, and has been stamped and unstamped with the label of al-Qaeda operative over the years, has not eaten since February 6.
He is gaunt and weak like dozens of other Guantanamo detainees who are participating in a protracted hunger strike that is approaching three months. Al-Hela, who walks with the aid of an aluminum cane, has lost more than 30 pounds in the past 10 weeks.
This is not the first time prisoners have refused sustenance to protest conditions at Gitmo, but it is the longest and most pervasive, according to human rights lawyers like Remes, who have sounded the alarm as their clients visibly deteriorated – mentally and physically – with each visit.
Remes and other defense attorneys have given Truthout access to unclassified notes they’ve taken while meeting with their Gitmo clients.
Hunger strikes historically have represented the only means of control the men are able to exercise over their daily lives. And there is something about this one that signals a new level of desperation and resolve.
Some have vowed to strike “to the death.” Countless others have tried to hasten the process with suicide attempts.
What Hunger Strike?
In early March, when journalists began to ask questions about a reported hunger strike involving about 130 of 166 prisoners at Guantanamo, US Defense Department officials disputed the assertions.
“There is not a mass hunger strike amongst the detainees at GTMO,” Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, told Truthout March 4.
“Some detainees have attempted to coordinate a hunger strike and have refused meal deliveries, but the overwhelming majority of detainees are not participating,” he said, placing the number of strikers at a half a dozen, “which is about what we have averaged for the past year.”
A “very limited few detainees” have engaged in sporadic hunger strikes for several years, he added. And the Gitmo prisoners “peacefully protest” from time to time about “a host of issues ranging from availability of particular brands of breakfast cereal to enforcement of long-established camp rules.”
But too many gaunt prisoners were telling their lawyers a different story, and the unclassified notes of client meetings and phone calls, along with information Truthout elicited in interviews conducted with officials at Guantanamo and the US Defense Department, point to new developments and old frustrations that precipitated the current crisis.
Changing of the Guard
Last summer, a new guard force arrived at Guantanamo. The Navy personnel who has previously patrolled the cellblocks were replaced by soldiers returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Prisoners complained to their lawyers bitterly and often about being “tormented” and “provoked” by the guards. Attorney Carlos Warner, who represents Kuwaiti detainee Fayiz al-Kandari, noted on March 20 that his client complained not only of guards “provoking” the prisoners, but threatening to kill them – a claim that Pentagon and Guantanamo officials have vehemently denied in all cases.
On January 2, an unprecedented shooting incident ratcheted up tensions at the $744,000 soccer field that the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo built for compliant prisoners who reside at the communal living quarters known as Camp 6.
Guantanamo spokesman Capt. Robert Durand told Truthout the incident occurred after a detainee attempted to climb the fence in the Camp 6 outdoor recreation yard, and “a small crowd of detainees began throwing rocks at the guard tower.
“After repeated warnings were ignored, the guard force was forced to employ appropriate crowd dispersal measures,” such as firing “nonlethal” rounds, one of which hit an Afghan Taliban prisoner in the throat.
But a Yemeni prisoner, Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, and others told a different story. He said it wasn’t the prisoners who provoked the guard force, but a guard who overreacted.
Uthman, who is one of 13 Guantanamo prisoners represented by Remes, told the Washington DC-based lawyer, that prisoners were playing soccer when another prisoner attempted to enter the recreation area. A guard in one of the two towers positioned in the field said, “No.”
“Detainee started shaking door (very common),” Uthman said, according to Remes’ March 7 notes. “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.”
On March 5, two days before Remes spoke with Uthman, another client, Yasein Ismael, told him the prisoners were “surprised when a guard in a tower pointed a gun at detainees and shot into the group.”
“They saw the gun as a killing weapon,” said Ismael, who had dwindled to 115 pounds when Remes saw him last month. He was unable to keep his balance and had to drink a “sugary water substance” to remain alert, the lawyer noted.
“I talked to [Guantanamo’s staff judge advocate], pysch ward people, investigators; I told them I thought my life was in danger,” Ismael said after the shooting incident. “I didn’t go out for a month because I thought I’d be killed by mistake or on purpose. They keep creating provocations, bringing Hummers with machine guns. No reason.”
Uthman insisted the men were not throwing rocks before the shot was fired, but that one prisoner did afterwards. When the guard’s bullet hit a prisoner in the throat, all but one prisoner went to help him – the one that threw the rock, he said.
“We were defenseless,” Uthman said. “We had no weapons.”
The Afghan Taliban prisoner was not seriously injured, and he was transferred to the maximum-security Camp 5, where he was held in isolation for 30 days.
The prisoners responded to the incident by staging a hunger strike that lasted for about five days. Uthman and several other prisoners said an officer in charge (OIC) of his prison block met with the prisoners following the shooting and apologized. The OIC told the prisoners the guard who fired the shot would be “court-martialed because he didn’t get orders to shoot.”
Clive Stafford Smith, the director of UK-based human rights group Reprieve, sent a letter to Rear Adm. John W. Smith, the commander of the prison, requesting a formal investigation into the matter.
“What the guard did would seem to qualify at least as the criminal offense of assault,” he wrote.
Former Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman, who worked at Guantanamo as a guard between 2006 and 2007, told Truthout that the guard who fired the round would have been required to sign a sworn statement about the incident and then an “after action report” would have been administered by his command, copies of which Truthout has requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That request is still pending.
Durand, the Guantanamo spokesman, did not respond to Truthout’s questions as to whether the guard followed the detention facility’s “rules of engagement” and “rules for the use of force.” The policy spells out the protocol guards are to follow “when force is necessary to protect or control detainees . . . if time and circumstances permit.” These include:
- Use the least amount of force necessary to stop escape.
- Fire with regard for the safety of innocent bystanders.
- A holstered weapon should not be unholstered unless you expect to use it.
- Report the use of force to your chain of command.
Shortly after the prisoners broke their initial brief hunger strike, the OIC came to Uthman’s block with dozens of guards who confiscated legal papers, eyeglasses and other personal items.
Uthman said the prisoners protested by covering the surveillance cameras in their cells so the guards would not be able to see their movements. The OIC returned and again apologized to the prisoners, saying the materials that were confiscated would be returned. The prisoners say they were not.
A week later, the OIC returned to one of the cellblocks in Camp 6 and locked it down.
“It was then that they searched the Koran,” Uthman told Remes. “And that was the beginning of the big problem.”
The Big Problem
Prisoners have claimed that their Korans have not been searched since May 2006.
That year, as Truthout previously reported, Gitmo commander Adm. Harry Harris ordered guards to search the holy books after several prisoners were found unconscious in their cells, the result of what officials said were attempts to commit suicide by ingesting near-lethal doses of medications.
Harris said when the Korans were searched, guards found medications hidden in the bindings of some. The prisoners, who viewed the handling of the Korans by non-Muslims as a form of desecration, rioted and launched the second major hunger strike at Gitmo, the first one having taken place in the summer of 2005.
The May 2006 incident resulted in a new procedure that precluded uniformed personnel from handling the Koran. Any future searches involving the Koran would be conducted by civilian linguists.
“It removes the potential for allegations of Koran abuse by the guard force,” Guantanamo spokesman Capt. Alvin Phillips told Truthout.
The death last September of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a Yemeni prisoner who was also represented by Remes and identified as a frequent hunger striker, is, in part, what led Col. John Bogdan, the commander of Guantanamo’s Joint Detention Group, to order Korans to be searched again, according to military officials Truthout spoke with.
Latif’s death was classified as a suicide. Investigators probing the circumstances surrounding his death concluded he hoarded enough prescription medication for a lethal dose. They believe he may have hidden the medication in his Koran.
Ismael said he believes the inspections began on February 4 or 5.
“An officer ordered a Christian interpreter to search” the Korans, he told Remes. “But interpreter refused. He said, ‘search of Korans will create major problems in the prison.’ Officer replied: ‘The Korans should be searched, and this is what will happen.’ Brother said, ‘If this is what you want to do, bring a Muslim interpreter and have him’ do it. “This is our holy book. We cannot hide anything in it. We can’t insult our religion.”
The officer was undeterred, according to the prisoners.
“The Korans . . . will be searched,” Ismael recalled the officer saying. “Then he ordered another interpreter to search the Korans. That interpreter also refused. But officer forced him. . . . Some soldiers say, “We did these Koran searches every day in Afghanistan. Why are you so upset?”
That soldier was “sprayed” with a mixture of feces and blood, according to another prisoner, Al-Khadr Abdullah Muhammed al-Yafi, who said the guard responded by saying, “I can kill you anytime.”
An OIC, whom Uthman identified to Remes as the “Black Leader,” started to rile up prisoners by telling them that another “OIC and soldiers were shooting” Korans.
“They started to provoke us,” Ismael said. “We thought they wanted us to react violent to give excuse for them to harm us.”
Prisoners in another cell block “started breaking cameras in their cells and anywhere else but the cameras were too strong,” Uthman said.
Ismael told the same story. He said the inspection of the holy books “really upset” the prisoners. “They started banging on the doors in the neighboring block.”
What followed was a visit by a team of guards dressed in riot gear. They pulled up in Hummers.
“[Three] groups, one with gun, one with sticks and one with shields,” Ismael said.
(Hickman, the former Guantanamo guard, said Ismael was referring to the Quick Reaction Force (QRF), “a 10-man team that is called in to handle major incidents.” As a staff sergeant at Guantanamo, Hickman said he was in charge of the QRF teams for all of the camps.)
“We could see through some holes in rec area,” Ismael said, according to the notes. “Brothers tried to forestall attack by agreeing to be peaceful. A peaceful protest. We passed word to that block [that was attempting to dismantle surveillance cameras], who calmed down. So we foiled the Army’s plan. But the guards entered any way. They used pepper spray on the men from large canister. The [QRF] teams stayed for about two hours. We were able to stay calm and then they left.”
“That was the beginning of the [hunger] strike,” Uthman said. “We covered cameras, stopped attending classes, had sit-ins. Everyone went on the hunger strike.”
Al-Hela, Remes’s Yemeni client, said there have not been any incidents at the prison involving the Koran for years.
“Then new OIC came in. He made the changes, surely with green light from JDG [Joint Detention Group] chief,” Al-Hela told Remes.
The prisoners offered to surrender their Korans and end their hunger strike instead of having them searched.
Guantanamo officials accepted the surrender of Korans in 2006, but have declined this time.
Yemeni prisoner Salman Rabeii believes the offer was refused because Korans provide the prisoners with “spiritual strength, so you will kill yourselves if you take it away.”
But fear of provoking suicide isn’t the only reason, Rabeii said. Guantanamo officials are also afraid they’ll “look bad in the media” if they deprive prisoners of religious material.
Meanwhile, the lawyers grew increasingly concerned with their clients’ dramatic weight loss as the hunger strike stretched into months. They banded together and wrote a letter to Guantanamo Cmdr. Smith, Navy Capt. Thomas Welsh, the chief staff attorney at Guantanamo, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel saying the prisoners’ lives were in danger and asked them to immediately order a stop to the Koran search.
Marine Col. William K. Lietzau, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for rule of law and detainee policy, responded to the attorneys. He told them Korans have been searched because of past “incidents” in which prisoners allegedly hid “improvised weapons, unauthorized food and medicine and other items” in the holy book.
Meanwhile, Guantanamo officials have steadily increased their official tally of prisoners on hunger strike week by week. Today, it stands at 84, although the prisoners say it is nearly twice that many. Detainees are defined as hunger strikers by officials if they miss nine consecutive meals.
Two weeks ago, after a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross left Guantanamo, guards staged a predawn raid at the communal camp and isolated prisoners into single cells in an attempt to bring an end to the protest.
“This action was taken in response to efforts by detainees to limit the guard force’s ability to observe the detainees by covering surveillance cameras, windows and glass partitions,” said a statement issued by Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, which runs the prison. “Round-the-clock monitoring is necessary to ensure security, order and safety.”
Stafford Smith said Guantanamo officials are escalating the conflict.
“This kind of authoritarian escalation is why we have a problem, not a solution,” he told Truthout.
A day before the raid, one prisoner tried to commit suicide; another attempted to take his life after the raid ended.
“Neither was very successful or got very far,” Durand said. “In both cases, the guards intervened, the detainees were seen by medical for their physical health, and both fortunately did not sustain injuries or permanent harm. They have been seen by behavioral health specialists.”
Some attorneys told Truthout that prisoners attempted suicide even earlier than last Friday. Durand described those incidents, which began at the start of the hunger strike in February, as “suicidal ideations and suicidal gestures, but nothing that raised to the level of suicide attempts.”
Dozens of questions Truthout sent via e-mail to Durand over the past month about the claims leveled by Ismael, Uthman, Al-Hela and other prisoners were not answered.
The lawyers’ notes exhaustively describe the accounts of prisoners who said they saw dozens of other detainees falling unconscious and being hauled off to the maximum-security camp by medical personnel to be held in isolation as punishment for participating in the hunger strike, never to return to compliant Camp 6.
“A detainee dropped unconscious,” said Hussain Almerfedi, a Yemeni prisoner, in a March 5 meeting with Remes. “We do not know if he’s alive.
Al-Hela said a prisoner who lost consciousness was taken to a solitary cell.
“Brothers try to revive the one who lost consciousness to spare him camps,” he said on March 6. More than 20 have been sent to Camp 5, isolation, for punishment.”
Camp 5 now holds more prisoners than Camp 6, Guantanamo officials told reporters Tuesday.
Shaker Aamer, the last British prisoner at Guantanamo, who organized a hunger strike in 2005, has been held in isolation in Camp 5 for months. He told Stafford Smith, his attorney, in a telephone call April 11 that he has been subjected to violent forced cell extractions several times a day as punishment for being a hunger striker.
“They are killing us,” Aamer said, according to Stafford Smith’s notes.
Ismael said that in an attempt to break the hunger strike, the temperature in the cells was lowered to 62 degrees.
“That’s very cold, especially for weak men,” he said, adding that the response from the guard force was “We’re missing [an air conditioning] part, which we need to import from US. We don’t have the budget. The supply ship is coming.”
Other prisoners said they were prohibited from discussing the hunger strike during phone calls with their family members, and if they uttered a word about it their calls would be disconnected.
On March 2, Ismael said a meeting took place between the “colonel” and “one of our brothers” in an attempt to reach a resolution to what was then a month-old hunger strike. It’s unknown if he is referring to Colonel Bogdan, the Joint Detention Group commander.
“Unfortunately, the colonel had no solution,” Ismael said. “Men just had to stop hunger strike” before prison officials would entertain their demands.
Rabeii told Remes on March 7 the “chief doctor” was sent to negotiate with the prisoners.
“You’re suffering. Why not break your hunger strike,” Hassan recalled the doctor saying. “
But Uthman said the prisoners have vowed to “strike to death.”
While the inspection of the Korans may have been the catalyst behind this most recent hunger strike, the driving force that sustains it is despair over more than a decade of indefinite detention and no hope of ever being released.
Ismael predicted he would be the next prisoner to leave Guantanamo in a box. In a March 11 letter to Remes, he said the hunger “is going toward the worst.
“I believe I am going to die in this hunger strike and this might be my last letter, or today is probably my last day in this world,” he wrote.
Last week, Remes was informed that Ismael is now one of 17 prisoners being kept alive by being strapped to a restraint chair and force-fed.