The Guantanamo Hunger Strike, Through the Eyes of British Prisoner Shaker Aamer
For over eleven years, a British prisoner at Guantanamo Bay has been held in detention without charge or trial. He has been cleared for release twice and suffered torture. He has been subject to conditions of solitary confinement for his participation in hunger strikes and for asserting that others in the prison have human rights.
Shaker Aamer is participating in the hunger strike at the prison that has been ongoing since the beginning of February, according to a declaration submitted to a US court by his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith.
Smith—also the director of the UK-based legal charity, Reprieve—spoke to Aamer for ninety minutes on an unclassified call about the strike. The following is what was submitted by Smith to a US court under penalty of perjury.
The hunger strike began on February 7. The spark that triggered the strike involved what prisoners perceived to be the violating of their Qurans.
On February 15, Smith recounts the guards:
…[C]ame to Shaker’s block in Camp V. (Note that I am generally not allowed to identify cell locations on a call such as this.) They FCE’d him (this means that they conducted a ‘Forcible Cell Extraction’, which is the current euphemism for sending in what has been known as the ERF, sometimes called the Emergency Reaction Force). They FCE’d the two others there also. They FCE’d all three men during prayer time. All three were injured in the FCE assault. One of the three was rendered unconscious and was taken to the hospital, where Shaker understands that he remained unconscious for four days. He is still in the hospital today.
ERF is a guard unit known to have brutalized prisoners in the past. Journalist Jeremy Scahill reported in May 2009 the force was still being utilized under President Barack Obama. He explained ERF teams are “made up of five military police officers who are on constant standby to respond to emergencies.” They dress in “full riot gear” and their suits have been compared to “Darth Vader.” Officers are each assigned body parts to restrain: head, right arm, left arm, left leg, right leg. Verbal warnings are supposed to be given before “storming the cell.” ERF teams are authorized to use mace on prisoners “twice before entering the cell.”
Aamer was subject to another FCE during “prayer time” on March 12. Then, on March 15, he began to be subjected to “sleep deprivation.” The guard force began to consciously make it difficult for Aamer to sleep at night.
On March 18, everything “got much worse,” as he was put in a cell on a block “designated for disabled prisoners” that had “not been used for several years.” It is “only a few feet from where the guards use the toilet, shower, eat,” etc. A female psychiatrist, who said her name was “Helena” asked Aamer if he planned to “harm himself.” She had heard Aamer wanted to “harm himself.” Aamer told the psychiatrist, “I have a wife and kids and I expect to be released sometime in the near future as I have been cleared for more than five years. It is not me who wants to harm me, but the Administration that is harming me.”
His complaints were dismissed. If the guards did not want him to hurt himself, they could put him in an “observation cell half way down the block with a plexiglass door where they could monitor him 24 hours a day, and where he might be able to get some sleep.” The psychiatrist responded where he was put in the prison was not her business. Aamer responded that it was, especially if he was being abused and denied sleep.
On March 19, Tunisian prisoner Adel Hakeemy attempted to commit suicide. Smith believes he was being held in Camp V Echo, “which is the most abusive of all the cell blocks in the camp” and where Aamer had been confined. (Hakeemy was brought back to this cell block on March 28.)
According to Aamer, the prison adopted a new “Code Matrix” for the camp.
…(i.e., Code Yellow means that someone has collapsed from the hunger strike, Code Snowball means that someone is committing self-harm, Code Orange Crush is where there is a open door for some unauthorized reason, and Code Matrix is apparently what they are using to avoid cameras and FCE teams)…
“The evil impact of these codes is that the guards rush in and assault people without the normal cameras that are used with the FCE team (which, in theory at least, record what is done to the detainee),” Smith details. A prisoner “in possession of a bottle water” was beaten without cameras. Also, the guards are now using a practice of putting detainees on a “dog leash.”
There is also a new practice that has been brought in which involves using a dog leash on the detainees. Normally, they would have the hand and leg shackles (which are still in use) and the hands would be held by a guard from behind as they walk (or, more generally, push) the detainee along. But now they are attaching a cloth dog leash to the waist chain, clipping it on as they might an animal. A Sergeant tried to make Shaker a victim of a Code Matrix [on March 19] when Shaker refused to have a dog leash, and be treated like an animal. However, in the end they backed off and went for the FCE team.
Aamer and Smith both believe prisoners are being targeted for engaging in nonviolent protest. A new method for FCE is now in use where “six large people” enter a prisoner’s cell, shackle his feet and hands behind his back. They lift him “like a potato sack.” The prisoner is then taken to wherever the guards want him to go. For someone like Aamer, who suffers from back injuries, this is very painful.
It is the night shift in the prison that is engaging in this practice and not using boards to carry around prisoners. The night shift, Aamer told Smith, is now on “Miller time.” It has reverted to the practices of Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who ran Guantanamo from November 2002 to August 2003 and is credited with “Gitmoizing” Abu Ghraib and other prisons run by the US. He believed prisoners at Guantanamo were ”like dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you’ve lost control of them.”
The reversion to “Miller time” includes deliberate obnoxious acts that are keeping prisoners awake. Guards are stomping around and talking loudly. A woman is singing. There is banging of the doors, “which are hydraulic and make a very loud slamming noise 20 or 30 times a night.” Chairs are being dragged around. “Crashing about with the ice chest,” is occurring and a “big fan” has been brought in that makes noise.
Inside the prison, a “number system” is supposed to give prisoners the ability to “report abusive soldiers,” but Aamer has been obstructed or prevented from getting the numbers for FCE teams, which are “wearing white coveralls that obscure their numbers.” Aamer also told Smith the guards are “changing their numbers and recycling old numbers from the past.”
Though hearsay, a colonel of the prison was reported by Aamer to have said, “I will bring this camp to how it was in the old times. I’ve got kids at home and I know how to deal with kids.” (Smith noted that Aamer is “worried for the Colonel’s kids, as there may be a need for social services to check on how they are being treated.”)
Because he complained to a medical corpsman, who agreed the new method for FCEs was “not permissible” with Aamer because of his back injury, Aamer was carried on a board during an FCE on March 20. However, the following day guards reverted back to the new method and added a cruel twist. The FCE team came in and a “large soldier, who weighed about 300 pounds, kneed him in the back” and held Aamer down with his full weight on him. The act left bruises on his back and hands. (Reportedly, the corpsman was to write down a report on the injuries but nobody came to see him about them and nothing was done.)
On March 22, the 300-pound guard returned again and he was subjected to abuse once more. “They held his hands and his legs, both crossed over, and the man pushed down until Shaker heard a cracking sound in his own back,” according to Smith.
Aamer would not leave his cell on March 23, as he feared he might be paralyzed by beatings that other detainees, like Egyptian Sami al Laithi, who suffered paralyzing injuries when he was beaten in the hospital.)
He met with a physician named “Dr. Cordelia.” She informed him he is now “recognized as a striker.” She explained engaging in a hunger strike could cause blindness, his kidneys to fail, brain damage, etc. Then, he was told he should take Thiamine, which is a medication for muscle spasms. He also should be taking nutrients like honey and Ensure while on strike.
Doctors are visiting him daily and have been since March 25. They are not doing anything about mistreatment in the prison and are following “orders from on high.” Aamer told the doctors this violates medical ethics.
The declaration indicates Aamer has lost thirty pounds. This is an estimate, “as he is not being accurately weighed.” His hand shakes constantly because he is on a hunger strike.
Aamer has been badly punished and denied items that he is to have access for medical reasons, such as an isomat for his back, a blanket for his arthritis, a knee brace for his knee injury, a back brace for his back problems and “pressure socks” that are supposed to help with edema in his feet. And, apparently, for ten days, he was not “allowed a toothbrush.”
Officers in authority are refusing to listen or hear any complaints from prisoners.
Aamer reported that 130 prisoners are on hunger strike in the prison. This number is consistent with what attorneys who represent Guantamo attorneys have been reporting.
Imprisoned since February 2002, Aamer has been a known leader in the prison. He has been both an advocate for prisoners’ rights as well as a mediator, particularly because he is able to speak English. And, on or around July 26, 2005, he helped prison authorities negotiate an end to a widespread hunger strike when multiple prisoners on strike had reached the “life-threatening stage.” He negotiated and not only pushed for better conditions but also for the prisoners to be charged and tried or released.
The negotiations broke down and he was put in isolation for over 360 days despite the fact that prison rules only permit isolation for a period of 30 days.
During this chapter of his confinement, the prison showed disregard for the medical problems he suffered from: his asthma, arthritis, kidney pain, tinnitus, constant constipation and stomach pains. They did nothing about the living conditions that were causing him extreme pain.
When he was in custody at a US prison at the Kandahar airport in Afghanistan, according to journalist Andy Worthington, “he apparently called almost immediately for hunger strikes to protest about the abusive treatment to which the prisoners were subjected, and he also claimed that he was subjected to serious abuse by U.S. forces, but also in the presence of a British intelligence officer, after he was transferred to the U.S. prison at Bagram airbase. This was not revealed until December 2009, in a court case in the U.K., when a judge granted his lawyers access to information in the British government’s possession that dealt with his claims.”
In one way or another, Aamer has been abused and/or placed in conditions of solitary confinement by prison authorities. It is because he has consistently been willing to resist authorities and demand dignity for prisoners or that they be charged, given due process rights or released. And today, he continues to look out for fellow prisoners, even as he suffers from abuse, medical problems and other punitive conditions imposed upon him in the prison.