Gitmo Hunger Strike: Bigger Than You Think

Gitmo- Camp Delta Credit AP
Gitmo- Camp Delta Credit AP

The Obama Administration was on the defensive last week as an intensifying hunger strike among the detainees at Guantanamo Bay finally reached international attention. Notably, it’s put into stark relief the fact that nearly half of the prisoners there have been cleared for release, but the White House – which once promised to close the facility – has done virtually nothing to find them a way out.

For those Americans who might be hearing this for the first time, these are startling circumstances that fly in the face of our constitutional, even western traditions – imprisoning men without charge, some for 11 years, with no hope of freedom. Like it or not, this puts us square in the same league as the regimes with whom we have fought for the last decade, spilling blood and treasure to "liberate" other people. Yet the Obama Administration has tried to justify (however limply) why men who are not considered our enemies, nor terrorists, must remain behind bars on a remote island like animals. Officials say no other country will take them – when in fact, we know from the detainees’ own attorneys and human rights activists today that Obama’s people have virtually stopped all efforts at detainee repatriation..

"Nothing is worse than being forgotten in an offshore prison camp with no hope for freedom," said Lt. Col Barry Wingard, a Judge Advocate General for the Office of Defense Council, U.S Military Commissions. He represents a Kuwaiti prisoner named Fayiz al-Kandari, now 35, whose charges for material support of terrorism were dropped last year. He also advocates for another Kuwaiti, Fawzi al Odah, also 35, who has never been charged. Both men were brought to Gitmo 11 years ago after they were sold to U.S forces for a bounty in Pakistan, Wingard told on Thursday.

Both Kandari and Odah have been participating in the hunger strike since the first week of February. Wingard last visited the prison in early March and says there are many more detainees on the hunger strike today than the military admits. As of this writing, the military had officially confirmed 28 hunger strikers among the prisoners. Wingard insists the strike is instead "camp wide" and "substantial." Other estimates from detainee attorneys and advocates with access to the jail put the number closer at 100.

Fayez al-Kandari's charges have been dropped but he remains imprisoned
Fayez al-Kandari’s charges have been dropped but he remains imprisoned

Currently there are 166 prisoners at Gitmo. Some 86 have been cleared for release. Due to recent federal court rulings, it is likely that the rest (aside from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the four 9/11 conspirators) will never be charged with anything that sticks. They are not the "worst of the worst" as they’ve been gratuitously referred to by Washington politicians in the past, but largely a bunch of small fish and scores of poor souls their lawyers have repeatedly argued were in the wrong place at the wrong time and have been paying for it, with their lives, ever since.

So what is really going on at the Guantanamo Bay detention center?

Carol Rosenberg, top Gitmo beat reporter for The Miami Herald, said on Sunday: "while the military and their captives dispute when it started and how widespread it is, it was clear from a three-day visit to the prison-camp compound this past week that the guard force is confronted with its most complex challenge in years."

Officially, we know that at least eight of them have been chained to chairs and hooked up to feeding tubes that force liquid sustenance through their noses. Two more have been hospitalized and are being force-fed, too. We know because the military has admitted this much to reporters.

While there has always been at a half dozen or so who have refused to eat, prisoners and their attorneys have openly blamed what they say has been a "crackdown" on attorney-client privilege, prisoner privacy, and general conditions at the camp for the tensions that led to a surge in strikers.

While reports from defense lawyers pinpoint the "last straw" being changes in detainee search policies instituted in February by a new commander of camp operations, Army Col. John Bogdan, this writer has been following the shift in conditions over the last year, speaking with several defense attorneys in early 2012 about their own restrictions and fears they could not represent their clients effectively in a legal environment that appeared completely stacked against them. Turns out the government (prosecution) has nearly unfettered access to their emails and electronic files, and has been tapping their phone lines too. Prison guards began intercepting and searching legal mail sent to detainees last year, and even attorney visits to clients have been more restricted since the Obama Administration took over in 2009.

More recently, during the trial for the 9/11 conspirators, Judge James Pohl became angered because an unknown "outside agency" had flicked a switch from somewhere and censored part of the proceedings. Defense lawyers are now concerned that aside from reading the legal mail, the military or other sources are actually listening in on their conversations with their clients – a charge that was first denied by prison officials, before they backpedaled and admitted the truth in February.

"Back in the days of the former administration, we would have real attorney-client relationships," Wingard said. "We would regularly have communication through the mail, I would be able to send letters and (news) articles. Now my client hasn’t received mail since October 2011. This crackdown is not new – we have seen our attorney-client relations dwindle. No one can explain it."

Meanwhile the prisoners have complained of new cell searches in the last several months, especially a notable one in February in which their personal items, including copies of Qurans, were rifled through by guards. The search of the Holy Book is considered a religious desecration in Islam. That was reported as the impetus for the increase in the number of prisoners on the hunger strike, but it is just one "symptom" caused by a festering atmosphere of tension and desperation, said Wingard.

For their part, military officials have acknowledged the inmates’ claims about declining conditions — including the reported Quran incident — may have precipitated the February hunger striking – but they deny that any of it has happened. In a lengthy statement given to the press last week, Capt. Robert Durand, Director of Public Affairs for Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, said the "recent allegations by detainees that conditions at GTMO have deteriorated or that guards have abused detainees or the Quran are patently false," in fact, they "include outright falsehoods and gross exaggerations."

Durand went on to say there has been no changes in cell or block searches, and that regular searches "reflect our mission to treat detainees humanely" and with respect to "both their religious and cultural norms."

Other military officials have expressed the same take, which invariably pursues the idea that the inmates are making the stories up to grab media attention. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Brasseale, in a CNN report March 19, actually suggested that defense attorneys were willing tools in this mass deception.

"Rarely does what is relayed to defense counsel by the detainees, which some members of the defense council then dutifully take to the press, match with reality," Brasseale said, in response to a question about an incident in which a prisoner was shot in early January.

The fact is, information is so controlled at the prison that there is no way of really knowing, said Wingard. What we do know from published reports and military confirmation, is that a guard shot "non-lethal bullets" at inmates on Jan. 2, after one tried to climb a fence and others were throwing rocks at the guard tower.

In the meantime there seems to be a concerted effort to depict the detainees as spoiled denizens of a very expensive full-service (Club Med) facility that just so happens to be fenced in with barbed wire and fortified with U.S Marines (Club Dread).

From Durand:

Detainees who follow camp rules have access to satellite television, personal DVD players, video games and more than 25,000 books, CDs, movies and TV shows. They also have many comfort items, including materials for crafts and extra food that detainees can store for snacks or treats in between meals. Allowing these items provides incentives for the detainees to comply with well-established camp rules…

Republicans got steamed when the military asked for $740,000 last year for a new soccer field for the inmates. FOX News, which last week was airing stories like this one called, "Hard Knock Life at Gitmo?" about the plethora of healthy food options, and "some of the same perks Americans are accustomed to," broke Soccer-gate in March 2012. This allowed Republican House members to grandstand even more about the "worst of the worst" sitting in the lap of luxury provided by the cash-strapped U.S taxpayer.

From Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas:

“A swanky high-dollar soccer field for criminal terrorist detainees at Gitmo. And of course, Americans are picking up the $750,000 tab for the recreation facilities for these criminals,” he said. “These radicals should be doing hard time, not soccer time. Our government has no business building this tropical Caribbean recreation facility for terrorists. It is disrespectful and insulting to all who are victims of these killers. What’s next at this terrorist playground? A tiki hut and bar on the beach?” Poe said. 

Well the "criminals" got their soccer field, apparently, because that is allegedly where the inmate was shot with the rubber bullets in January, according to reports.

Detainee IDs displayed at a protest outside the Supreme Court, February 2013. Credit: K Vlahos
Detainee IDs displayed at a protest outside the Supreme Court, February 2013. Credit: K Vlahos

But Hotel Gitmo is a shopworn canard. It’s more like Hotel California and we all know it. This is all a distraction of course – a simple rhetorical gambit to convince the domestic audience that we shouldn’t care that individuals are being held indefinitely without charge because after all, they are provided creature comforts that "most Americans are accustomed to (we’re also accustomed to the Rule of Law here, too, by the way)." In a funny way it’s kind of reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode in which an astronaut played by Roddy McDowell lands upon an alien planet inhabited by people who seemingly look and behave human. He is then ushered into a meticulously replicated Middle American home, complete with food, liquor, cigarettes – everything a man of 1960 would want. He is thrilled by his surroundings – until he realizes all the doors are locked and he is in a cage at the zoo.

"To believe that these human beings are contented to live in an animal cage for their rest of their lives because they have delicious food and a library are devoid of reality," said Wingard. "Do a test," he challenged, "open the cages and see if they want to stay."

It all seems pretty perverse now that reports are coming in describing the weight loss among the inmates as "alarming." A Friday Associated Press report directly mentions Wingard’s client, al-Kandari, who appeared to a lawyer visiting Gitmo as having lost 25 pounds and barely able to stand. "Several other attorneys have reported similar accounts after meeting or speaking with prisoners in recent days," said the AP.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only outside, independent watchdog allowed access to the detainees, is supposed to be monitoring and weighing the men, according to Wingard, but the statements the ICRC have issued recently suggest only that it is "aware of the tensions at the detention facility."

"The ICRC routinely follows the situation of detainees on hunger strikes and continues to do so today," the group said in a statement. "The ICRC believes past and current tensions at Guantanamo to be the direct result of the uncertainty faced by detainees."

An email to the ICRC for further comment went unreturned.

Despite the tightly controlled talking points the hunger strike has allowed Wingard and scores of other human rights activists and outside defense attorneys new opportunities to shed light on the fact these guys are in purgatory, and the administration has apparently stopped trying to find homes for the 86 who are cleared. In fact, in January, the administration closed the office that was supposed to be pursuing that mission.

In a rare, candid moment last week, Marine Corps General John Kelly, commander of Southern Command, which overseas Guantanamo Bay, admitted to the House Armed Services Committee that this and other disheartening news has added to the despondency of the camp population.

“They had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed. They were devastated apparently … when the president backed off, at least (that’s) their perception, of closing the facility,” Kelly testified.

Life has become black, say activists. Some have taken to behavior such as throwing rocks and "bodily fluids" at guards. For Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, one of the first prisoners to cross the threshold at Gitmo in 2002, and a former hunger striker whose release had been approved by two administrations, the future had apparently become too hopeless. The Yemeni national reportedly committed suicide in his cell in December (more on the troubling details behind his death, here). He was the ninth inmate to die at Gitmo, and not the first under questionable circumstances, since the facility opened its doors.

Wingard points out that the Kuwaiti government has built a $40 million rehabilitation center to take back prisoners from Gitmo (it was referenced in a 2009 State Department memo, released by Wikileaks, here). Today it stands empty. Meanwhile, his clients Kandari and Odah are costing the U.S taxpayer nearly $688,000 each annually – 20 times more than a regular federal prisoner would cost, according to the Government Accountability Office, even though the men are, so far, not charged with any crime. Keeping Gitmo open costs about $114 million a year. Now Gen. Kelly is asking for $170 million for repairs to upgrade buildings like the troop barracks and dining hall, which were supposed to be temporary and are now falling apart.

“These are things that we have to do right now,” Kelly said of the repairs. “I’m assuming Guantanamo will be closed someday. But if you look at the past 11 years when it was supposed to be temporary, who knows where it’s going.”

Who knows, is right.

On March 14, an impressive group of human rights lawyers advocating for and representing the detainees, signed a letter to new defense secretary Chuck Hagel. They said they feared for the lives of strikers who, some of them witnessed personally, had already lost upwards of 30 pounds. They implored Hagel to address the hunger strike, and requested an opportunity to work with him "more broadly to help your office and this Administration fulfill its important commitment to closing the prison."

So far, they have had no response. Meanwhile, Wingard points out that shortly after the letter went to the secretary of defense, the Navy canceled commercial flights to Cuba, the only way most of the advocates and defense lawyers can get to Guantanamo. Officials say the decision was based on an old regulation that had been "overlooked," but the fact remains, the only other flights there are on a weekly defense department shuttle for which there is limited room and passengers must be cleared by the DoD.

This indicates, said Wingard, that "there are movements afoot to make the men incommunicado … once you cut them off from the rest of the world it makes things like hunger strikes harder to communicate."

Hagel has inherited this stain, this shame. He has the power to begin making it right. In the meantime, these detainees are crying out with their very lives for us to pay attention. Let’s make sure it’s not in vain.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.