It has now been one hundred days since prisoners being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison launched a hunger strike. According to the Miami Herald‘s Carol Rosenberg, the Pentagon says 102 prisoners are now on hunger strike, and thirty are being “tube-fed.”
The hunger strike was sparked in February. As noted in a letter sent by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and habeas counsel to military officials in March, “Since approximately February 6, 2013, camp authorities have been confiscating detainees’ personal items, including blankets, sheets, towels, mats, razors, toothbrushes, books, family photos, religious CDs, and letters, including legal mail; and restricting their exercise, seemingly without provocation or cause,” the letter read. And, “Arabic interpreters employed by the prison have been searching the men’s Qur’ans in ways that constitute desecration according to their religious beliefs, and that guards have been disrespectful during prayer times.”
Defense lawyers have claimed that, throughout the majority of the hunger strike, well over a hundred prisoners have been participating. The Pentagon only began to acknowledge publicly that a strike was happening in March. After that acknowledgment, the number of prisoners it said were on strike gradually escalated to thirty or forty prisoners.
There was a military lockdown of Guantanamo prisoners on April 13. Prisoners were removed from communal areas and placed in single-cell confinement. After this happened, the official Pentagon number of hunger strikers sharply escalated to 92 by April 24. Over the past weeks, it has gone up by 12 prisoners.
The number of prisoners being force-fed by the military also increased after the lockdown of prisoners. Since April 13, the number has gone from 13 prisoners being force-fed to 30 prisoners being force-fed.
The Pentagon sanitizes this practice by referring to it as “tube-feeding.” That term does not make it apparent that the military is forcing tubes down prisoners’ throats and essentially torturing them.
Carlos Warner, an assistant federal defender who represents 10 prisoners on hunger strike, described the force-feeding process to Newsweek.
“It begins with these men being forcibly extracted from their cells and taken to a common area.” This is done by an Emergency Reaction Force (ERF) made up of five military officers in riot gear. They have been known to brutally manhandle prisoners and even assault them as they move prisoners from their cells.
Warner says the technician straps the men into a chair, “the legs, the stomach, the chest, the arms and the head.” Many men struggle against the entire feeding process.
“A tube is inserted into the nose and it is described as a tube that is too large, and the men asked for a smaller tube,” according to Warner, but those requests have been ignored. “They’re jammed into the nose by a technician because doctors will not participate in this process as it is a clear violation of medical ethics. The technicians often do not find the right path, and they cause bleeding. And, when they do find the right path, it is described as razor blades passing down the back of a man’s throat.”
“As it hits the throat, the gagging reflex begins and breathing is difficult as it presses against the windpipe,” Warner explains. “When the tube hits the stomach, if the formula is pumped in too fast, the men will instantly vomit. If it is pumped at a reasonable rate, a half hour or more, hunger pains return. After three months, there is no hunger and one of the most torturous parts about it this is that hunger returns each time and this happens twice a day. It’s happening, we believe, to the majority of men in Guantanamo.”
Upon completion of the forced feeding, “Sometimes the technician will rip the tube from their noses and without hesitation insert the same tube into the man next to them.”
Warner finds, “This is a torturous and barbaric practice that must end. These are innocent men, who’ve made a voluntary decision to die because our government will not release them, but instead of releasing them, our government chooses to force-feed them.”
Dr. Gerald Thomson, a former president of the American College of Physicians, has stated, “You’re kept in the chair for at least two hours, usually more than two hours, to prevent you from vomiting and undermining the force-feeding. You can’t go to the bathroom during that time. Your dignity is taken away. The World Medical Association and international officials have clearly identified that process as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. And whatever the—given the level of brutality, it could extend to torture.”
Thomson worked on a report put out by The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment in mid-April. The report not only contained a thorough examination of instances of US torture under President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama and President Bill Clinton but also highlighted the Pentagon’s policy toward handling hunger strikes.
Remarkably, when Task Force Staff spoke to then Joint Task Force Guantanamo commander, Rear Admiral David Woods, in January 2012, he characterized hunger strikes as “a tool used by [detainees] to stay in the fight.” A Pentagon official, who accompanied the Task Force staff, added, hunger strikes are in “the Manchester Manual,” an alleged Al Qaeda training document.” This is “why they do it.”
Woods was asked to clarify how prison authorities would distinguish “between detainees who engage in hunger strikes to protest their indefinite detention and detainees who have been found to have links to Al Qaeda and the Manchester Manual.” The answer he gave was, “We consider anyone undertaking hunger strikes to be continuing the fight against the US government.”
There have been numerous reports from Guantanamo defense attorneys alleging abuse or torture against prisoners engaged in the hunger strike and prisoners, who are speaking out about the conditions of their confinement.
The latest report of inhumane treatment involves sexual abuse. Legal representative for multiple Guantanamo prisoners, Clive Stafford Smith, suggested “guards are now subjecting inmates to humiliating body searches if they want to speak to lawyers.” David Remes, a Guantanamo attorney, told AFP, “Under the new search policy, a detainee who leaves his camp is subject to a search including his private parts and holding his private parts.”
The treatment, according to Remes and Smith, is leading to prisoners refusing to take legal calls because they do not want to experience abuse. And, these tactics used on prisoners should be understood as part of a covert effort to break the hunger strike.
It has become an often-cited statistic, but it merits mention again, given the continued detention of prisoners at Guantanamo: 86 of the 166 prisoners in the prison have been cleared for release by President Obama’s own Review Task Force, which was comprised of representatives from all the major national security or intelligence agencies in government. Eighty-six people have been deemed completely innocent and have been found to pose absolutely no threat whatsoever yet they remain at Guantanamo.
“Most of the 166 men still imprisoned at the U.S. naval base in southern Cuba are Yemenis—at least 88, by the Yemeni government’s count, plus a few Saudis of Yemeni descent,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “Of the 86 prisoners approved by a presidential task force four years ago for transfer out of Gitmo, 59 are Yemenis — and their new government wants them back.”
Forty-eight prisoners have been deemed “too dangerous to release,” but that does not necessarily mean the government intends to charge them with a crime. The Obama administration has tried to transfer them to a federal detention facility in the contiguous United States, where they could be held for an indefinite period. That has been opposed by human rights groups, which demand the administration charge and put prisoners on trial or release them.
Protests are being held today all over the world, in front of the White House and in London Sydney, New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Anchorage, Eureka, California, Amherst, Massachusetts, Toledo, Ohio, and Charlottesville, Virginia. The demands by Amnesty International and other human rights groups are to transfer detainees cleared for release and appoint a high level official to lead the effort to close Guantanamo.
“As the hunger strike at Guantanamo passes its 100th day, my clients’ bodies are breaking down, but their resolve and spirit have never been stronger,” declared Omar Farah, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “When I met with Tariq Ba Odah on April 30, he told me: ‘We have nothing left to lose, but I have never seen such high morale in the prisoners. We will endure anything to be free.’ That same day, President Obama vowed again to close Guantanamo. Words are not enough. After 11 years of indefinite detention without charge or trial, Tariq and the others trapped at the prison cannot wait any longer. The president must use every tool at his disposal to release the prisoners he will not try in a fair court and finally shutter Guantanamo, once and for all. Every day he delays tempts an awful fate.”
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink, has noted that Obama is the “commander-in-chief” and the “most powerful man in the world.” He is capable of emptying the prison, whether it is fully shut down or not. He should “stop blaming Congress and muster the moral courage to close the prison and end this shameful chapter in US history.”