Witness Against Torture's 96-hour cage vigil outside White House marks tenth anniversary (photo: Shrieking Tree)

Prisoners at Guantanamo are marking the tenth anniversary of the opening of the prison with a hunger strike and peaceful protests. A counsel to a number of detainees at Guantanamo, Ramzi Kassem, told Democracy Now! and UK-based journalist Andy Worthington that for a three-day period they will engage in “sit-ins” in “communal areas” of the prison.

In Worthington’s report, Kassem says they planned on informing “the Officer in Charge” that there would be protests. They also were “encouraged by the ‘expression of solidarity’ from US citizens planning protests” for January 11.

A client of Kassem’s informed him “banners and signs” have been prepared. And prisoners want the “outside world know that they still reject the injustice of their imprisonment, and feel that it is particularly important to let everyone know this, when the US government, under President Obama, is trying to persuade the world that ‘everything is OK’ at Guantánamo, and that the prison is a humane, state of the art facility.”

Press were also invited to come to the prison and “request interviews” so they could hear about the ‘toll of a decade’ of detention without charge or trial.” Kassem’s client also said prisoners “’would like nothing more’ than to have an independent civilian and medical delegation, accompanied by the press, be allowed to come and talk to the 171 men still held.”

It is unknown how authorities will respond to demonstrations and the planned show of resistance by prisoners at Guantánamo. Navy Rear Adm. David Woods is the new prison commander and Worthington reports he has a “reputation for punishing even the most minor infractions of the rules with solitary confinement.” Kassem says prisoners believe the new “regime” under Woods “harks back to the worst days” in the prison, “between 2002 and 2004, when punishments for non-cooperation were widespread.

The first hunger strikes at Guantanamo began in 2002. They continued into 2005 and wound up changing the dynamics of the prison. Former detainee Binyam Mohamed said there was no law and a colonel was saying, “I do what I like.’ After the hunger strike – the big hunger strike of 2005 – [the military] started implementing some kind of law that we knew about.” But, come 2006, the prison began to force feed prisoners that were striking and would force tubes down prisoners’ throats in a manner that successfully convinced many of the prisoners to end their resistance.

JTF-GTMO detainee assessment reports, published by WikiLeaks as “The Gitmo Files” in April 2011 and allegedly released by Pfc. Bradley Manning to WikiLeaks, provide more details on hunger strikes at the military prison.

The last British resident (and a client of Kassem), Shaker Aamer, is well known for engaging in resistance through hunger striking (so it is not surprising that he plans to participate in the tenth anniversary hunger strike from his cell). According to the reports, he was questioned about hunger strikes during interrogation. He allegedly stated “the death of a detainee at JTF-GTMO would ‘open the eyes of the world and result in the closure of the base.’”

Another detainee was asked during an interrogation about Aamer and allegedly stated “the primary reason the JTF-GTMO detainees went on the hunger strike was because detainee’s lawyer told them exactly what they needed to do.” Abd al-Rahim Abdul Raza Janko allegedly said of Aamer he would pass information to other detainees who came to Camp Echo for Habeas visits.

In the report that mentions these details, it says of Aamer’s hunger striking, “Detainee has continued to participate in activities against the US,” indicating hunger strikes are a kind of militant tactic to the staff.

Hani Saiid Mohammad Al Khalif’s report alleges he helped to train other detainees in the prison and served in a “leadership role” among detainees. And, according to Adel Fattough Ali Algazzar’s report, Khalif allegedly was an “emir.” He also encouraged others to participate in hunger strikes. (Algazzar is one of a number of detainees whom JTF GTMO and the Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF) could not agree on when assessing whether Algazzar posed a risk and could be released or not.)

Muhammad Ali Abdallah Muhammad Bwazir’s report, filed on October 27, 2008, mentions Bwazir’s hunger striking. In his “executive summary” on “reasons for transfer out of DoD control”:

If released without rehabilitation, close supervision, and means to successfully reintegrate into his society as a law-abiding citizen, it is assessed detainee would probably seek out prior associates and reengage in hostilities and extremist support activities at home and abroad. Since transfer to JTF-GTMO, detainee continues to demonstrate his commitment to extremist activities within the camp. Detainee volunteered to be a suicide operative and actively participates in the hunger strikes. Detainee has been mostly non-compliant with guard force personnel. He has responded cooperatively during debriefs in the past, but currently withholds information of intelligence value.

In Sami Al Hajj’s report, filed on April 4, 2008, the cameraman for al Jazeera who was detained is noted to be “compliant and rarely hostile to the guard force and staff, although he still carries on with a long-term hunger strike.”

Abdul Rahman Shalabi, who the Associated Press reported in 2010 was now Guantanamo’s longest-term hunger striker, engaged in hunger striking in the months before the date of his detainee assessment report. By then, he was being strapped down into a padded restraint chair and then force-fed with a flexible feeding tube that was inserted through his nose and throat. He was designated as a “HIGH” threat from a detention perspective.

Reprieve, an organizations based in the United Kingdom that “uses the law to enforce human rights of prisoners from death row to Guantanamo Bay” tracked Shalabi. In a news story published on their website on November 11, 2009, Andrew Wander reported conditions were deteriorating under President Obama. Independent doctors who had evaluated Shalabi said “the insertion of the [feeding] tube has done permanent damage to his nose and throat, making inserting new feeding tubes difficult and stopping him from receiving the calories he needs.”

By March 2009, his weight had dropped to “107 pounds, 30 percent below his ideal body weight and at the threshold of major organ failure.” Dr. Emily Keram, a psychiatrist, concluded Shalabi exhibited symptoms and disorders that likely were a result of coercive interrogations and other mistreatment. And, she said records indicated he had been “subjected to Forced Cell Extraction in connection with his feeding multiple times per day through the months of January and February “ in 2009.

As Shalabi wrote in a letter, “I am a human who is being treated like an animal.”

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What is JTF-GTMO’s policy toward hunger strikes? As of August 11, 2005, this was JTF GTMO’s policy on hunger strikes:

Joint Task Force (JTF)-GTMO policy is to avert death from hunger strikes and from failure to drink as well as to monitor the health status of detainees who are fasting voluntarily. Every attempt will be made to allow detainees to remain autonomous up to the point where failure to eat or drink might threaten their life or health. The Detention Hospital (DH) is responsible for providing health care monitoring and medical assistance as clinically indicated for detainees who are voluntarily fasting or on a hunger strike. The Officer in Charge (OIC) of the DH will ensure that the appropriate standards of care for the medical and administrative management of fasting detainees are adhered to. The DH OIC will do everything within his/her mean to monitor and protect the health and welfare of hunger striking detainees including involuntary intravenous hydration and/or enteral tube feeding if necessary. DH medical personnel will make every effort to obtain consent from a voluntary faster for treatment

What’s the distinction between a voluntary faster and a hunger striker?

Voluntary fasting (VF) “occurs when a detainee communicates his intent to JTF-GTMO personnel to undergo a period of fasting for a specific purpose, has had no solid food intake for a period of 72 hours (9 consecutive meals), but is taking adequate liquids/fluids by mouth.” And, hunger striking involves a “detainee who communicates his intent to JTF-GTMO personnel to undergo a period of voluntary or total voluntary fasting as a form of protest or to demand attention from authorities.”

A further distinction appears in the released reports. For example, Tarek Baada, who is one of the few detainees known to have engaged in a long-term hunger strike, is not regarded as a hunger striker by JTF GTMO. The euphemism appropriated to Baada is a “voluntary total faster.” Under “Detainee’s Conduct” in his assessment report, it reads, “He is currently in voluntary total fast status since 07 January 2007, refusing 1,065 consecutive meals. In 2006, he had a total of nine Reports of Disciplinary Infraction and fourteen in 2007.”

Voluntary total fasting (VTF) “occurs when a detainee communicates his intent to JTF-GTMO personnel to undergo a period of fasting for a specific purpose and has not taken any solids or liquids for a period of more than 48 hours.

The JTF-GTMO Surgeon, along with the DH medical staff, the Commander Joint Detention Group (JDG) and the Joint Intelligence Group (JIG), in order to make a “hunger striker” designation, must prove intent, purpose and behavior, according to JTF-GTMO. Religious fasting, severe depression with suicidal intent manifested by not eating or drinking are two examples where a detainee would not be designated a hunger striker but rather a voluntary faster or voluntary total faster.

The JTF-GTMO Surgeon is the only person permitted to remove “a detainee from the Hunger Striker list.” Detainees are not to be removed from the list until a “DH medical officer has evaluated him and has determined that he is no longer on a VF, VTF or hunger strike.” This clearly demonstrates the prison staff has aimed to assert top-down authority by deciding who is and who is not striking. Detainees who claim to be striking have to be on a list in order to be considered “hunger strikers.”

In July 2007, then-outgoing commanding officer of the Naval Station Guantanamo Hospital and head of the JTF JMG, Navy Captain Ronald L. Sollock, addressed the care of his team of medical professionals, which the prison had typically provided to the striking population. He said, “Involuntary feeding is not used to break the hunger strike…we are using sound medical indicators when necessary to preserve the life and health of detainees. We do not let the detainees get to the point of losing consciousness or becoming comatose to intervene. We will intervene to preserve their health and life before that time.”

But, as noted in the cited release, military commanders consider hunger striking to be a tactic that “al Qaeda recruits” use to “attract media attention to their detention.” Should one actually believe commanders who assert force-feeding or involuntary feeding of detainees has not been the military prison’s way of stifling resistance from detainees, who seek to assert themselves and gain rights in the prison along with greater access to legal counsel?

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Hunger striking has been one of the few ways prisoners can fight back. A June/July 2005 hunger strike overwhelmed the prison staff. The Defense Department was forced to pledge to prisoners it would bring the prison into compliance with the Geneva Conventions. The hunger strike stopped. But, it resumed again when it became clear the Department had no intention of abiding by its promise.

True, all these hunger strikes might get is more promises from the Defense Department that will be broken. Abuse of prisoners might escalate, as it did in August 2005 during a second wave of hunger strikes. These prisoners are treated as less than human by the Defense Department, most of the US government and many US politicians in Congress.

When prisoners have a chance to challenge their detention and press for their release, they are subjected to Kafkaesque proceedings where it is mostly a foregone conclusion they will not be getting out of Guantanamo from the beginning of the hearing.

What prisoners have is the hope that decent human beings will demonstrate out in the open and condemn their government for failing to shut down a prison that is an abomination. Their only hope is that citizens will continue to organize against this prison, which holds humans who deserve to be released because there is no evidence to justify their continued detention.

Former Guantanamo prisoner Omar Deghayes confirmed this on Democracy Now!:

…Most people who got out from Guantánamo, the majority of—all of them, more than 90 percent, the people who left Guantánamo, was not a decision made by a court. It was more by—through political process and through different dealings between governments or between campaigning. I think the more people campaigned about a certain person, the more an embarrassment that person has become to the government, that then he would be released. So, because of that, I think many people who are still in Guantánamo are not—in Guantánamo, nor are they a threat to any or dangerous to anyone’s security. The only reason they’re kept there is because not enough campaigning has been done on their behalf. There are Yemenis who probably their parents wouldn’t be able to have access to media, international media, or they didn’t have a proper process of campaigning, and so on…

Prisoners who still have not been able to get out have citizens, who do not let the inhumanity of the politics of fear or indifference of the politics of possible limit their expectations for government, who recognize humans have been tortured and abused and that alone is good reason to fight for justice and demand they be released from Guantanamo.

The combination of hunger striking and knowing US citizens are challenging their government is the only thing that gives these human beings any hope of returning to their families. President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), heavily restricting the release of prisoners from Guantanamo. He completely betrayed justice and humanity and effectively ensured that the most reactionary elements of American society would continue to be able to manipulate government to pervert justice. Waiting for Obama to fulfill his promise to close Guantanamo would only let the horrors of Guantanamo persist.

The actions US citizens take give prisoners optimism that they might one day make it out of this legal and moral black hole. Likewise, the bold actions of hunger strikers inside inspire US citizens to challenge the cynical political climate, where it is conventional wisdom that leaders do not care about closing Guantanamo, and take a stand for human rights.