Can the Guantanamo Hunger Strike Be Broken?

With arms tied down and feet shackled, Yasiin Bey writhes in anguish as a feeding tube is shoved into his right nostril. Groaning in extreme discomfort as his handlers push the tube deeper, Bey – better known as Mos Def – breaks into sobs as he begs for the torment to stop. “This is me, please, stop! I can’t do it anymore.”

Released just a few weeks ago by the British human rights group Reprieve, the video already has some 5 million views on YouTube. Designed to showcase the brutality of the Army’s forced feeding of hunger-striking Guantanamo detainees, the video’s popularity has prompted Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale – the Pentagon spokesman for Guantánamo policy – to demur that the video “doesn’t comport with our procedures.” (Breasseale himself, however, has never witnessed the force-feeding procedure.)

As the month-long fast of Ramadan begins, leaders throughout the world are calling for the Obama administration to reassess its stance on force-feeding the 106 hunger-striking detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. While officials say they will respect detainees’ right to observe the fast during the daylight and only attempt force-feeding after sunset, advocacy groups have revamped their campaigns to end force-feeding altogether.

Joining Breasseale in defending the government’s decision to continue force-feeding detainees, the House of Representatives recently included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2014 barring any transfers of detainees to Yemen. That means that even for detainees cleared for release – the bulk of whom are Yemeni – there’s still no way out, neither by transfer nor starvation.

Speaking at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Representative Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican who recently visited Guantanamo, rebuffed public discontent with not only force-feeding but also the continued existence of the detention center. In response to Federal Judge Gladys Kessler’s characterization of force-feeding as “painful, humiliating, and degrading,” Pompeo painted force-feeding as a moral obligation to make sure the prisoners he calls “the most dangerous of people” don’t die at Guantanamo. More than half of these “most dangerous” people have been cleared for release yet languish in the prison.

Pompeo went on to call the hunger strike part of a pattern of “disruptive behavior” by detainees trying to make their case for freedom. Pompeo also questioned the basis for the hunger strike, citing a possible lack of autonomy among the detainees due to peer pressure and fear of repercussions from fellow prisoners. The representative from Kansas speculated that some detainees may be being “ordered to participate” and as a result are “happy to receive force feeding” from the medical team.

Pompeo’s claims about the strike contrast starkly with the experience of Ahmed Belbacha, a detainee who has twice been cleared for release by a U.S. military review board. Belbacha has resorted to hunger striking as the only “peaceful means that [he has] to protest [his] indefinite detention.” In contrast to Pompeo’s claim that force-feeding is welcomed by detainees, Belbacha has said of the process, “[it] hurts a great deal…tears stream down my cheek. They shackle our feet with metal chains and shackle our arms and hands. Then they put us in a force-feeding chair and tie us with belts.”

Pompeo made clear that the U.S. government has no current plans to free Belbacha or the other 85 prisoners who have been cleared for release, claiming that many of them could still pose a threat to national security.

What Options Remain

There are only three options for detainees who have been cleared for release, all of which present serious obstacles: return to their home county, release to United States, or release to a third country. In many cases, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that detainees who are returned to their home countries could be tortured, something that both the Bush and Obama administrations have said rules out repatriation as an option. And the last several NDAAs have made transferring detainees to a third party even more difficult by restricting the use of funds for such resettlements, leading the State Department to close the office responsible for arranging them.

Releasing detainees to the United States would seem like a logical solution. But once there, prisoners would be entitled to due process and Miranda rights, setting in motion proceedings that could end without a conviction. Detainees would also have the right to take legal action against the United States for their mistreatment while in Guantanamo. Guantanamo apologists like Pompeo are unlikely to permit either scenario from unfolding. At any rate, this option was made irrelevant by Congress, which has prohibited the use of funds for transfer and prosecution of detainees in the United States.

In the absence of action by Obama or Congress, the only other possible outcome for the detainees languishing at Guantanamo is indefinite imprisonment. Unless Obama is willing to stand up and make releasing cleared detainees a priority, it seems any change at Guantanamo is nearly impossible at this point.

In conjunction with its campaign to bring awareness to the hunger strike, Reprieve published a nine-step program that explains how Obama can quickly and effectively end this “troubling chapter in American history” with or without Congress. Key components of this plan include the appointment of a White House official responsible for Guantanamo and the establishment of rehabilitation centers overseen by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC).

Though the passing of the NDAA has hindered efforts to transfer detainees and close Guantanamo, it is still possible. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon, a California Republican, says his committee “has worked to ensure that the certifications necessary are reasonable.” McKeon pointed out that Congress has reserved the ability to waive, on a case-by-case basis, restrictions on the transfers of detainees if a case is deemed to be in the “national security interests” of the United States. Obama, he noted, “has never certified a single transfer.”

Also within the president’s reach is the ability to halt force-feeding. Federal Judge Kessler, in a four-page opinion concerning the force-feeding of a Syrian detainee, says that while she lacks the authority to rule on the issue, the president “has the authority – and power – to directly address the issue of force feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.”

While Congress may be against closing Guantanamo, there are many organizations and individuals ready to support the president in his quest to close a facility that he once called a “symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” Obama would be wise to take them up.

Note: On July 16, military spokesman Lt. Col. Samuel House reported that 25 detainees had ended their hunger strike. Officials contend that this is a result of a new policy that requires detainees to agree not to hunger strike in exchange for access to communal prayer space. However, David Remes, a defense lawyer for several Guantanamo detainees, remains skeptical, suggesting that “perhaps the authorities finally made hunger striking such a horrendous experience that some men, at least, are dropping out.”

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.