Guantanamo Bay Detainees Are Hunger-Striking for Change

Dozens of Gitmo inmates are being force-fed to deny them ‘martyrdom’; will their protests force President Obama’s hand to close the camp?

Detainees talk together inside the open-air yard at the Camp 4 detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. (Photo: Brennan Linsley/Reuters)

May 16, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama repeatedly vowed to close the United States Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba—citing the camp’s history of abuse and the horrific pall it cast over the country’s reputation abroad.

More than five years later, despite fits and spurts of public pressure, Obama has yet to make good on that promise to close Guantanamo. The military detainment and interrogation site was established by the Bush administration in January 2002 to house and break down suspected adversaries in the Global War on Terror. The methods used to break down those suspects resulted in, among other counterproductive outcomes, a prosecutorial refusal to press charges against a detainee under grounds that the evidence had been obtained through torture.

By the late 2000s, American disgust with the ways and means of Guantanamo reached such a pitch that Obama made closing the facility a talking point of his first presidential campaign. Now, once again, public pressure is building to hold the president to his word.

A four-month hunger strike by detainees inside Guantanamo has reinvigorated calls to shutter the camp. What started as a scuffle over the desecration of a Quran—after several Muslim inmates claimed their holy book had been mishandled by military officials during cell sweeps—has generated international attention and become a global public relations disaster for the United States.

Some of the hunger strikers being force-fed through tubes in their noses have been holding their protest since February.

As of last week, 100 huger-strikers are inside Guantanamo, 29 of whom have become so weak they are being force-fed, according to NBC News. The entire facility holds only 166 detainees.

Some of the hunger strikers being force-fed through tubes in their noses have been holding their protest since February.

“When that tube goes up your nose, your eyes begin to water, as it passes through the back of your skull. As it passes through your throat, you begin to gag and you begin to suck for air until it’s passed into your stomach,” Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, a military lawyer representing two of the hunger strikers told NBC. “It’s agony, according to my client.”

In response to the force-feeding, the American Medical Association sent a letter to Obama’s State Department, clarifying its contention that such procedures are inhumane:

Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.

The force-feeding, however, continues—even as pressure on Obama to finally close the facility mounts. Late last month, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to the White House demanding the Obama administration transfer 86 detainees who had been cleared for release out of the facility:

I would like to ask that the Administration review the status of the 86 detainees who were cleared for transfer in the past and let me know if there are suitable places to continue to hold or resettle these detainees either in their home countries or third countries.

These detainees remain in Guantanamo, and the facility appears no closer to shutting down.

The administration has blamed Congress for failing to act. But key insiders suggest other considerations are in play—namely, that the government is holding individuals in Guantanamo who it considers dangerous, but who may have not actually committed any crimes.

“There is a group of 46 individuals who have been deemed ‘too dangerous’ to be released,” Laura Pitter, counterterrorism advisor for Human Rights Watch, tells TakePart. “The administration says they don’t have enough admissible evidence to convict these individuals of a crime. They won’t prosecute because they would lose the case.”

So the administration continues to hold these individuals under questionable legal justifications.

Pitter says there is, of course, no guarantee against any of the 86 cleared detainees reverting to—or taking up for the first time—terrorism if they are released.

There are, however, some case studies the government can use to influence its decision. Pitter says of the 600 individuals who have been freed from Guantanamo since its inception, only 3 percent have been confirmed to have engaged in militancy after release.

“The U.S. criminal recidivism rate is 60 percent,” she says. “You cannot guarantee someone is completely safe. But these people are being detained illegally. Ultimately that makes the United States less safe. The president himself has said it’s in the U.S. national security intersest to close Guantanamo down.”

So who is being served by keeping it open?

Does America have a right to keep cleared detainees confined indefinitely? Say why or why not in COMMENTS.