Creative Commons-licensed Photo on Flickr by Shrieking Tree

British prisoner Shaker Aamer has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for over eleven years. He has not been charged with any crime or given a trial. He has been cleared for release yet he remains in detention. And he is one of the more than one hundred prisoners being held at Guantanamo who have been engaged in a hunger strike.

Aamer recently spoke with his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, who is the executive director of the UK-based legal charity, Reprieve. Smith submitted a declaration with what Aamer reported to him to a United States court.

Yesterday, this blog covered the abuse Aamer and others are being subjected to for engaging in nonviolent protest. Aamer described to Smith how an Emergency Response Force (ERF) is conducting forced cell extractions on prisoners. He described how he is being held in isolation in a cell where it is difficult for him to sleep and how the night shift in the prison has grown increasingly obnoxious, as guards make loud noise to keep the prisoners awake. Aamer also told Smith about officers now using a practice of putting a dog leash on prisoners. (Read the full post here.)

Now, from the declaration—and to give the hunger strike that began in early February some more attention—let’s focus on what Aamer told Smith about how he thinks the US military is trying to conceal the scope of the hunger strike.

On March 19, Aamer reported that two “generals” visited Camp Five, where Shaker is being held. He was not certain but thought one of the individuals visiting might have been Gen. John F. Kelly, who is the head of US Southern Command. He had “an entourage with him,” and, before their arrival, “an ambulance pulled up outside the camp, with doctors, nurses and a stretcher. They were in civilian clothes. They had all sorts of equipment, including an oxygen tank.”

A man who had a “light beard who was not a detainee” [emphasis not added] was put on a stretcher. This detainee had “no cuffs.” He was strapped down to the stretcher to keep him from falling off. He was carried to an “ambulance in full view of the generals” and then driven to the hospital.

“This was all an act for the generals to try to impress them with how good everything was,” Aamer asserted. He believed “if challenged” the military might say it had been a “training operation.”

Visitors have been coming to the camp “every two or three days.” Aamer believes this is part of an effort to “convince people that treatment” of prisoners is “fine.” However, the daytime is “much quieter” and “the worst abuses happen” at night.

Aamer added another aspect of the effort to conceal what is really happening involves a change in how food is handled:

…Normally, Shaker reports, the food that was not used was left outside. Now, it is being put in the insulated containers in the block, to hide the fact that the detainees are refusing to eat it. This may, he thinks, also be done to make the smell of food lure more prisoners to go back to eating.  Then all the unused food is thrown in the trash, so that the civilians who make it get the food containers back empty, and again cannot report on how much is not being eaten…

Nobody in a position of authority is taking complaints from prisoners, even though Aamer has asked to see the officer in charge multiple times. Could this be a way to hide the scope—simply not taking complaints so plausible deniability among officers can be maintained?

The Pentagon acknowledges there are at least 30 prisoners engaged in a hunger strike. According to the Miami Herald‘s Carol Rosenberg, this number is reflective of the fact that the military only defines a prisoner as a “hunger striker if they have “lost enough body weight and skipped at least nine meals in a row.”

Aamer and Guantanamo defense attorneys rely on a definition that is not designed to coverup the level of resistance at the prison. Both Aamer and attorneys have reported that 130 prisoners are on hunger strike.

Aamer adds that out of 66 prisoners at Camp Five there are 45 prisoners who are recognized as being on “strike.” Aamer was only recently recognized as being on “strike.” Also, according to him, there are multiple prisoners having trouble with their blood sugar levels and seven prisoners are in the hospital.

The weight of prisoners is being played with by authorities, who are now using a “big scale.” Prisoners are weighed with “shackles,” and the weighing often occurs after they have had a “lot of water” to drink. Weight readings are hidden from prisoners so they do not know what is written down. “Miracles,” according to Aamer, have occurred; for example, a prisoner weighing 127 pounds last week, who had not eaten, was told the next time he was on the scale that he weighed 140 pounds.

Rosenberg reported on April 1 that “eleven of the captives were being fed nutritional supplements by tubes snaked up their nose and into their stomach. Two were hospitalized for intravenous drips as well as the tube feedings. On Friday, the military counted 37 captives as hunger strikers.”

Aamer told Smith that there are six to ten prisoners that are “falling down” every day because their blood sugar levels are too low. The military, instead of force-feeding them with the method that involves a tube and a chair, is having them strapped to a board. They are then told to “take a mixture of honey and water” or they will be left on the board for “several hours until they agree to take the honey and water.”
Aamer is around 158 pounds. He has lost thirty-two pounds. The bones in his chest can now be seen, and, because his body has suffered greatly over the past years, he is taking “two or three spoons of honey a day to try to ameliorate the worst impact of the strike on himself.” (Note: It does not seem the military is forcing him to take a mixture of honey and water.)

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All of the above is being done in effort to convince the world that all is okay and those concerned can look away. The Pentagon does not want the hunger strike to appear as if a majority of prisoners are participating. So, they concoct a definition that can make it difficult for it to appear resistance to indefinite detention is ongoing.

How does this compare to the way the Pentagon has handled prior hunger strikes?

In 2002, prisoners went on hunger strike. The official start date or when the first prisoners began to strike is still unknown. The Pentagon would not make public this information. It has done the same in this case, leading journalists to report two figures in their stories: the Pentagon statistics and the Guantanamo defense attorneys’ statistics, which are always much higher.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has attorneys who represent prisoners, in 2005, during a hunger strike the Defense Department conducted “misleading ‘show tours’ of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay Naval Station for US Senators. About 200 prisoners were engaged in a hunger strike. But, senators were “prohibited from speaking directly to any detainees.” It left senators with a view of the detainees’ living conditions and how they were being treated that was inaccurate. For example, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) stated on July 11, 2005, “Everything we saw is consistent with what we have learned from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ongoing oversight operations at GTMO.” He also said, “It is really hard for me to imagine any better treatment that this country could provide for those kind of people. They are treated humanely and respectfully.”

These “kind of people” were all living in Camp Four, “where a small number of prisoners clothed in white jumpsuits” were “cooperating with interrogators.” The military was not allowing people access to Camp 5, which housed nearly 100 prisoners; not even political representatives.

Though a hunger strike had been ongoing for at least a month, Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico stated on July 20, 2005 “that he was unaware of any hunger strike taking place at Guantánamo.” The Pentagon refused to release facts on the 2005 hunger strike but eventually had to admit prisoners were participating because—as has been the case with this current strike—counsel for prisoners were disclosing what was happening in the prison.

On March 16, CBS News reported, “Two Defense Department spokesmen, Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale at the Pentagon and Capt. Robert Durand at the Guantanamo base, denied there is a widespread hunger strike at the military prison.” Breassale said, “That there is any concrete, mass hunger strike — that is an utter fabrication,” and, “Some who claim to be hunger striking are in fact eating handfuls of trail mix, nuts, and other food. They are taking in plenty of calories.”

Then, the Pentagon would only admit that 14 prisoners were engaged in a hunger strike and that figure included five or six individuals who had been conducting hunger strikes “on and off for years” and were being subjected to force feeding by having a tube shoved down their nose while strapped to a chair.

Truthout‘s Jason Leopold published a comparison on April 1 between the hunger strike that occurred in 2006 to the hunger strike taking place now. Both strikes were set off by inspections of Korans for “contraband.” Leopold noted, “These searches were in response to five suicide attempts in May 2006 and the death last September of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a high-profile prisoner who an Army medical examiner concluded took his own life by ingesting a lethal dose of anti-psychotic medications.”

NCIS investigators, according to Leopold, theorize that Latif hid medications in his Koran, “specifically, the binding of the holy book.” Back on May 18, 2006, a prisoner was found “unconscious in his cell, frothing at the mouth, inside the now shuttered Camp 1. The prisoner apparently ingested pills he was not prescribed. So the JTF-GTMO commander at the time, Adm. Harry Harris, ordered a ‘shakedown of the cells‘ and said he found pills hidden in the ‘bindings of the Holy Quran” and other places, such as one prisoner’s prosthetic leg.’” (Three prisoners who had been hunger striking did commit suicide in June 2006.)

Truthout has submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for “a wide range of documents pertaining to the hunger strike and the treatment of the prisoners.” It is part of an effort to challenge the secrecy the Pentagon has sought to maintain around what is really going on with the hunger strike at the prison.

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In some ways, the information operation engaged in by the Pentagon has not succeeded because attorneys are sharing what prisoners are telling them. They are reporting dire statistics on the hunger strike that call into question what the Pentagon is telling the public. On the other hand, there has not been too much attention given to the hunger strike in US media. In February, the press really did not follow-up on claims made by attorneys that there were many prisoners engaged in a hunger strike after a denial by the Pentagon. And, until March 15, when 14 prisoners were acknowledged to be on what the Pentagon considers to be a hunger strike, news coverage of the hunger strike did not begin to steadily increase.

Aamer is the father of four. He is one of 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release by an interagency review, which President Barack Obama authorized by executive order. It was conducted by ”60 career professionals, including intelligence analysts, law enforcement agents, and attorneys, drawn from the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other agencies within the intelligence community.” They conducted a “rigorous examination” and considered “the threat posed by the detainee, the reliability of the underlying information, and the interests of national security.”

Despite what CBS News’ Mark Phillips recently said on air—that Aamer’s case is stuck as many Guantanamo cases are because no US defense secretary can guarantee that Aamer won’t be a risk to U.S. security once he is released—there is absolutely no reason for anyone to justifiably argue Aamer would pose a security risk if released. There is no chance at all that it would pose a risk to the US to return him to the United Kingdom, a foremost ally of the US.

Remarkably, in November 2011, his attorney, Smith, reported Aamer did not “expect President Obama to do anything better than his predecessor, President Bush.” He did not believe presidents are any better than the “powers that surround them,” and stated, “The White House is a straitjacket. You just wear it.”

He was reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and told Smith, “You must read this book because you need to understand what is happening here in Guantánamo. Torture is for torture, the system is for the system.” He also said, “Please torture me the old way. Here they destroy people mentally and physically without leaving marks.”