Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home

Ahmed Zuhair, a 35-year old Saudi prisoner at Guantánamo – and a father of ten – has been on a hunger strike since June 2005, at the start of a fraught summer at the prison in which up to 200 prisoners (over a third of Guantánamo’s total population at the time) embarked on a mass hunger strike in protest at their ongoing – and seemingly endless – imprisonment without charge or trial, and also as a protest against the day-to-day conditions in the prison, where casual brutality was still widespread, and a severe regime of punishment was still in place.  

This regime had been instigated by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the prison’s commander from November 2002, whose approach to dehumanizing the prisoners, and making every shred of comfort in their lives dependent on their perceived cooperation with the interrogators, impressed Donald Rumsfeld to such an extent that, in the fall of 2003, he sent him to Iraq to “Gitmo-ize” the prison system there, leading directly to the implementation of the sadistic regime that was exposed when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004.  

There was a brief hiatus in the hunger strike in August 2005, when the prisoners were allowed to form a very short-lived Prisoners’ Council. This secured some concessions from the authorities, including an increase in the amount of food they were given, and the implementation of a new system of punishments and rewards, which brought to an end the exclusive use of orange uniforms, and the introduction of a graded system that gave white uniforms to “compliant” prisoners, and tan-colored uniforms to those who were somewhere between “compliant” and “non-compliant.” However, the authorities failed to effect major changes to how Guantánamo was run, and, after another violent incident, when an interrogator threw a mini-fridge at a prisoner during an interrogation, the mass hunger strike resumed, and was even more widespread than it had been before.

Illegal force-feeding

The authorities responded, as they had with the many other hunger strikes throughout the prison’s ignoble history (most of which had been prompted by abuse of the Koran), by force-feeding prisoners who refused to eat, even though medical ethics have long prohibited force-feeding mentally competent hunger strikers, recognizing that it is often the only manner in which they can make protests about the conditions of their confinement. By January 2006, the strike was finally brought under control when the authorities imported a number of restraint chairs to make sure that it “wasn’t convenient” for the strikers to continue, as Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, the head of the US Southern Command, explained to the New York Times.  

In conversations with their lawyers, prisoners explained how the restraint chairs worked. Emad Hassan, a Yemeni, said, “The head is immobilized by a strap so it can’t be moved, their hands are cuffed to the chair and the legs are shackled. They ask, ‘Are you going to eat or not?’ and if not, they insert the tube. People have been urinating and defecating on themselves in these feedings and vomiting and bleeding. They ask to be allowed to go to the bathroom, but they will not let them go. They have sometimes put diapers on them.” Another prisoner, the Bahraini Isa al-Murbati (released in August 2007), told his lawyer, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, that, after he refused to be force-fed voluntarily, “soldiers picked him up by the throat, threw him to the floor and strapped him to the restraint chair.” Colangelo-Bryan added that his client explained that, after he was “fed two large bags of liquid formula, which were forced into his stomach very quickly,” he “felt pain like a ‘knife in the stomach.'”

Prisoners also explained, as the Times described it, that “medical staff also began inserting and removing the long plastic feeding tubes that were threaded through the detainees’ nasal passages and into their stomachs at every feeding, a practice that caused sharp pain and frequent bleeding.” They added that, until that point, “they had been allowing the hunger strikers to leave their feeding tubes in, to reduce discomfort.” 

As indicated above, Gen. Craddock had a different appraisal of the situation, telling reporters that soldiers began using the chairs “after finding that some were deliberately vomiting or siphoning out the liquid they had been fed.” “It was causing problems because some of these hard-core guys were getting worse,” he said. “The way around that is you have to make sure that purging doesn’t happen. Pretty soon it wasn’t convenient, and they decided it wasn’t worth it.” 

As a result of the introduction of the restraint chairs, the number of hunger strikers fell from a total of 41, on December 15, to just five, with three of the five – including Ahmed Zuhair – being force-fed.  

A year later, Zuhair and the other two long-term hunger strikers – Abdul Rahman Shalabi, a Saudi, and Tarek Baada, a Yemeni – were still refusing to eat, and were still being subjected to the twice-daily insertion of the tubes into their stomachs, according to a report by imprisoned al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj (released in May 2008), who had embarked on a hunger strike himself. Al-Haj also explained that, “at the end of January [2007] there were at least 42 people on hunger strike.”

Ahmed Zuhair’s legal challenges

Like most long-running stories, the men’s ordeal then slipped off the media’s radar, only resurfacing last October, when Zuhair’s lawyers submitted documents to a federal court in Washington D.C., which, they said, established that their client was subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” In a struggle with the authorities that had been going on for over three years, Zuhair repeatedly tried to resist being force-fed, which led to regular “forced cell extractions” by teams of armored guards, which were justified, according to Army Col. Bruce Vargo, the commander of the guard force at Guantánamo, on the basis that Zuhair had “a very long history of disciplinary violations and noncompliant, resistant and combative behavior.”  

In a subsequent report, on November 28, after his lawyers sought to have him subjected to an independent medical examination, one of his lawyers, Ramzi Kassem, explained that, although the military alleged that Zuhair weighed 137 pounds and was “in no immediate danger,” he estimated, after a recent visit, that he weighed no more than 100 pounds, and “also appeared to be ill, vomiting repeatedly during meetings” at the prison. “Mr. Zuhair lifted his orange shirt and showed me his chest,” Kassem explained. “It was skeletal.” He added, “Mr. Zuhair’s legs looked like bones with skin wrapped tight around them.” 

The latest twist in Zuhair’s case came on March 18, with a widespread hunger strike raging at Guantánamo once more (involving up to 50 prisoners), when the Obama administration rejected a proposal whereby Zuhair would end his hunger strike if he was moved from the chronic isolation of Camp 6, where prisoners are held in solid-walled, windowless cells for an average of 22 hours a day, to the communal facilities in Camp 4, where prisoners spend most of their time outdoors.  

Responding in the government’s court filing, Col. Vargo claimed that Zuhair’s “history of disciplinary infractions” – 80 in the last four months, apparently – made him “ineligible” for Camp 4, and added, as the Associated Press described it, that “agreeing to transfer him would create a ‘very real risk’ that other prisoners will seek similar deals.” “The potential impact on Guantánamo’s security and the threats to the safety of Guantánamo’s staff and camp population cannot be overstated,” Col. Vargo concluded.

No one mentioned that he’d been cleared for release

However, the most extraordinary aspect of Ahmed Zuhair’s plight, which was not mentioned in press reports on Wednesday, is that he was actually cleared for release from Guantánamo, after the latest round of annual reviews – known as the Administrative Review Boards – on December 23, although he was not informed until February 10, and his lawyers were not told until February 16. 

This rather makes a mockery of the Guantánamo authorities’ complaints about the “threat” he poses, and the allegations, still cited in news reports, that “US authorities allege that he trained with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and was a member of an Islamic fighting group in Bosnia in the mid-1990s,” but above all it confirms – as if any confirmation were required – that, in the isolated world of Guantánamo, what counts against the majority of the prisoners is not the supposed rationale for their detention in the first place, which is often nothing more than a distant memory, but their behavior in detention. This might make sense in a conventional prison, where prisoners have been convicted of crimes, and the authorities have a responsibility to maintain order, but in Guantánamo, where few of the current prisoners have even been charged with a crime, and only one man – Ali Hamza al-Bahlul – has been convicted (after a one-sided show trial last November), it is both cruel and unjustifiable. 

While this reflects badly on the prison authorities, I believe it also reflects badly on the Obama administration. After two months, the new President has only released one prisoner from Guantánamo: the British resident and torture victim Binyam Mohamed, whose case established that, if the stakes are high enough – in other words, if you were subjected to extraordinary abuse, whose disclosure could cause enormous embarrassment (or even a call for criminal investigations) on both sides of the Atlantic – you can be fast-tracked to the front of the new administration’s review process.

Send the Saudis home, President Obama

I don’t begrudge Binyam Mohamed his freedom, of course, as it was long overdue, but I’m disappointed that, of the 59 prisoners who have been cleared for release (a quarter of Guantánamo’s current population), not a single man has been freed since Barack Obama took office. I understand that, in many cases, this is because the State Department is still trying to find third countries to re-house men from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, who cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be tortured, and that in the cases of 12 Yemenis, this is because the US and Yemeni governments are still struggling to establish a mutually acceptable basis for the return of prisoners. However, in the case of Zuhair, and five other Saudis cleared for release, these explanations are not applicable. 

In 2006 and 2007, after the Saudi government established a rehabilitation program that satisfied the Bush administration, 108 Saudi prisoners were repatriated, and although there have, in recent months, been howls of outrage from right-wing commentators, after a handful of these men resurfaced in connection with militant groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the rate of recidivism has been insignificant, and is far outweighed by the program’s success in divesting ex-prisoners of the false notions of jihad encouraged by radical clerics, and in supporting them as they reestablish themselves in Saudi society. 

Given the close ties between the US and Saudi governments, the success of the rehabilitation program, and recent suggestions that the Saudi government may take Yemenis from Guantánamo who have family ties to Saudi Arabia, my concluding questions are simple: why, after three and half years on an agonizing hunger strike, has Ahmed Zuhair not been repatriated, to end his torment and to reunite him with his family, and why, in addition, have the other five Saudis – some of whom have been cleared for release for several years – also not been repatriated?  

Perhaps the Obama administration needs reminding that another reason the majority of these men were released so swiftly and in such large numbers (which was not the Bush administration’s normal method of operating) was in response to exceptional pressure exerted by the Saudi authorities following the deaths of three men in Guantánamo in June 2006 (two of whom were Saudis), and the death of another (also a Saudi) in May 2007. All these men had been long-term hunger strikers – and the three who died in 2006 had been force-fed until just before their deaths – and, in addition, Mani al-Utaybi, one of those who died in 2006, had been cleared for release since November 2005, although Navy Commander Robert Durand admitted, with a kind of off-hand callousness, that he “did not know whether al-Utaybi had been informed about the transfer decision before he killed himself.” 

In Ahmed Zuhair’s case, this danger period – when he could have died before knowing that he had been cleared for release – has now passed, but it remains inexplicable that he continues to be held in conditions that constitute a severe danger to his health, when there is no longer any reason to hold him.  

Responding to the government’s filing on Wednesday, Ramzi Kassem stated, “They want to pressure Ahmed to break his hunger strike by continuing to detain him in the excessively harsh environment of Camp 6. Moving Ahmed to Camp 4 to encourage him to cease striking would rob … prison authorities of the sick victory of breaking him.” He might also have added that holding Zuhair – and other cleared prisoners – in Camp 6 makes a mockery of the supposedly “humane” conditions at Guantánamo, which apparently conform to the requirements of the Geneva Conventions, according to a recent Pentagon report submitted as part of the new administration’s review of Guantánamo

For these men, who have never been charged or tried for any crime, and have, moreover, been cleared for release, there is simply no justification for holding them in the isolation of a prison block modeled on a maximum security prison for convicted criminals on the US mainland, instead of transferring them to a block where, after seven years in an abominable experiment that has still not come to an end, they would finally have the opportunity to socialize, to feel the fresh air and to see the sunlight.  

This is the least that President Obama should do, but in the case of Ahmed Zuhair and the other cleared Saudis he should go one step further and send them home.

Author: Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is a historian based in London. He is the author of The Guantánamo Files, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in Guantanámo. He writes regularly on issues related to Guantánamo and the "War on Terror" on his Web site.