(update below)

A Yemeni prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay prison, who has been participating in a hunger strike which has been ongoing for weeks, has requested “emergency humanitarian relief” from a federal district court he says he and other prisoners are being denied access to potable water.

The motion for emergency relief filed on March 26 by his attorneys asserts, “For the past three days, prison authorities have denied” Musa’ab Omar al Madhwani – “and others within his and one other cell block – access to potable water. When Musa’ab and his fellow prisoners requested drinking water, the guards told them to drink from the faucets.”

It adds, “The tap water at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station is not potable and residents of the Naval Station drink only bottled water.” And, also, “The lack of potable water has already caused some prisoners kidney, urinary and stomach problems.”

Stephen N. Xenakis, a medical doctor, submitted a declaration as an expert witness for Musa’ab. In it, he declares:

…Advising hunger-striking detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility to drink water from the faucet predisposes them to gastrointestinal infections and a quick demise, because their metabolic status has been severely compromised and their medical and physiologic conditions are significantly impaired…

Counsel for Musa’ab further allege that over the past ten days authorities in the prison have kept the air conditioning at an “extremely frigid temperature, much colder than ever before.” Musa’ab is unable to keep himself warm in the “cotton clothing” that is provided to him.

Lawyers indicate they are concerned Musa’ab and other prisoners could experience “serious and potentially life-threatening harm” as a result of this lack of access to potable water. Dr. Xenakis believes the “reversion to the harsh conditions that prevailed in 2002 and 2003 could trigger in Musa’ab the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder linked to the effects of his torture” when he was confined at Bagram prison in Afghanistan. They seek a court hearing on the “facts and circumstances” and a court order requiring the prison to provide prisoners with potable water, adequate clothing and to instruct the prison to maintain the facility at a proper temperature.

But, Colonel John V. Bogdan, who currently serves as the Joint Detention Group (JDG) Commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) denies all the allegations made in Musa’ab’s emergency motion. In a declaration to the district court, he states:

…All detainees at Guantanamo Bay, including those in Camp 6 and Mr. Al-Madhwani [Musa'ab], have unlimited access to potable water from taps in sinks in their cells and on the detention blocks. In accordance with DoD regulations, that water is checked at least once a month in each camp by the personnel from the Joint Medical Group to ensure that it is potable. The water from the sinks originates from the base desalinization plant and is the same water that runs through the entire base at Guantanamo, and is available for consumption by all military personnel, civilians and their dependents on the base. It is the same water that I drink on a daily basis…

Bogdan maintains all prisoners “have access to bottled water upon request,” including prisoners like Musa’ab. There are “cases of bottled water that are kept on the blocks and, should that water run out, the detainees can request more.” He also says the temperature of cell blocks is being properly regulated and, “Cell temperature manipulation is not an authorized disciplinary measure and is not used for such purposes.”

He claims, Musa’ab “has not requested additional clothing nor has he indicated any medical necessity which would warrant additional clothing.” The government argues the emergency motion should be denied because none of the “rather startling allegations” are true plus it is “fatally flawed as a matter of procedure.” The government argues, “Habeas action is not an appropriate proceeding to raise these conditions-of-confinement claims.”

Lawyers for prisoners have reported over the past weeks that the majority of Camp 6 is on hunger strike. There are around 130 prisoners in the camp. The Pentagon, which has its own criteria for when a prisoner is and is not actually on a “hunger strike,” has put the number of prisoners on “hunger strike” at 31. So, given this misrepresentation of the extent of the hunger strike in the camp, how likely is it that Bogdan’s declaration is the truth and Musa’ab’s allegations are all without factual basis?

One of the demands of hunger strikers in 2002 was for “clean water,” according to a Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) report. Ultimately, this demand did lead to the prison authorities making bottled water available to prisoners.

A CCR report released in February 2009, which outlined how conditions at the prison had worsened since President Barack Obama took office, asserted:

…Medical staff have permitted guards without medical training to assist in administering treatment. They have failed to address conditions of detention that undermined the health and well-being of the prisoners, such as inadequate and insufficient food, water, sanitation, shelter from inclement weather, as well as isolation, fear, mistreatment, and the mental anguish caused by indefinite detention. Improper or insufficient food, water, and sanitation has led detainees to suffer from, among other symptoms, renal pain, chronic constipation, weight loss, rotted teeth and receded gums… [emphasis added]

After Obama signed an executive order on January 22, 2009, a special Defense Department team was authorized to conduct a review of conditions at the prison. The team looked at food and water and found prisoners were being provided “unlimited access to potable water in their cells” and “provided bottled water upon request, unless they have been placed in a disciplinary status for using the bottle as a weapon (e.g., using the bottle to squirt or spray bodily fluids on guard staff or visitors).”

Musa’ab is one of the many prisoners still in detention at Guantanamo, who should be free. He has been imprisoned for eleven years and yet a court has rejected evidence to support his detention because it consisted primarily of “statements extracted from Musa’ab through torture and coercion by agents of the United States.” While confined at the Dark Prison at Bagram, he “endured forty days of solitary confinement, severe physical and mental abuse, malnourishment, sensory deprivation, anxiety and insomnia.”

A court denied his habeas corpus petition on January 6, 2010, yet in the same ruling found Musa’ab posed no threat to the US and he should be released. Three years later, he remains in Guantanamo and, according to his lawyers, in that period both of his parents died.

*

Tom Wilner, who served as the counsel of record on Rasul v. Bush and Boumediene v. Bush—two cases that established detainees’ right to habeas corpus, writes in a column for the Washington Post, “The hunger strike is the Guantanamo detainees’ cry for attention.” He notes, “More than half of them — 86 — were cleared for release more than three years ago by a special presidential task force composed of top US intelligence and law enforcement officials. Some were cleared even before that, during the Bush administration.

“Unlike prisoners in the United States, these men are held virtually incommunicado, with no opportunity to see their families,” Wilner explains. “Those not initially cleared were promised review hearings almost four years ago, but not one has occurred. They are understandably frustrated.”

This week, Robert Johnson of Business Insider published a piece with venerating praise for what the Pentagon has done to give prisoners “absurdly good” conditions. In the article, he fixates on how the prisoners can play video games, and sanctimoniously writes, “Conditions for most detainees are good, as noted by me, Reuters’s Bob Strong, and anyone else who has actually visited Guantanamo recently. Koran inspections aren’t going anywhere. As for the closure of the detention center, well, we’ll believe it when we see it.” (Koran inspections are what ignited the hunger strike, but “it’s not clear that the Koran incident even happened.”)

Johnson and others may be won over by the dog-and-pony display put on for them by the military when they visit. They may think they’ve figured out the “truth” of what is really behind the hunger strike and write articles arguing disaffected prisoners are taking advantage of an impossible situation, but, if the United States government is not going to release these men so they can return to their homes and see members of their family who have not died yet, then the least they can do is meet the demands of prisoners, no matter how frivolous they may seem.

This may be surprising to those who have convinced themselves the prison is some kind of resort, but no amount of food, water, video games or other accommodations will ever change the fact that prisoners want to be back home. Conditions may be “absurdly good,” but no prisoner wants to continue to be confined in a cell in Guantanamo. If people like Johnson are capable of any empathy, they should ask themselves if being confined without no charge or trial and no reasonable basis for detention for eleven years would not lead them to resist in the way Guantanamo prisoners are resisting and if being able to play “Angry Birds” on Nintendo DS when they are on their best behavior would be enough to keep them calm and happy.

Update 

A former hospital corpsman for the US Navy also submitted a declaration. Daniel Lakemacher “was deployed to Guantanamo Bay as part of the Joint Task Force - Joint MedicalGroup in 2007, and served in that capacity into 2008.” He states staff in the facility never drank tap water. “Based upon my observations, it was commonly understood that drinking thefaucet water would not be healthy.” (h/t @ceinquiry)