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For long periods we forget it, even though it is a human rights disgrace surely unequalled in recent American history. But now, 11 years after it opened, the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay is demanding our attention once again, thanks to the largest hunger strike by detainees in its infamous history. Al-Qa’ida has been decimated; America’s war in Iraq is over and the one in Afghanistan soon will be. But the scandal of Guantanamo endures.
Today, 166 inmates remain. Three have been convicted, while a further 30 will face trial. Fifty or so are in a legal no-man’s-land, deemed by the authorities too dangerous to release but against whom there is not enough evidence to prosecute. And then there are 86 who have been cleared for release, but who instead rot in a hell from which there is no escape. No wonder yesterday more than 160 of them were involved in clashes with guards that led to what the US said were “less than lethal” rounds being fired.
In 2009, Barack Obama entered office vowing to close Guantanamo within a year. Perhaps he should have listened more closely to his predecessor. George W Bush, too, wanted to shut Guantanamo; even he came to understand it was perhaps the most powerful single recruiting agent for global terrorism. But, he warned presciently, the devil was in the detail – or, more exactly, in Congress.
Mr Obama’s planned to transfer most inmates to a high-security prison in Illinois, but that idea was blocked. Then Congress made things harder still, first scotching a plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the organiser of 9/11 and Guantanamo’s best-known prisoner, in a civil court in the US, and effectively banning the use of public money to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the US or abroad.
Even so, Dan Fried, the special envoy in charge of closing the prison, managed to resettle 40 detainees during Obama’s first term. But at the end of January, Mr Fried was reassigned and not replaced, his duties incorporated into the State Department’s existing legal office. For the 86 inmates eligible for release it was the last straw. Within a week the hunger strikes started.
Detainees tell their lawyers that up to 130 now are taking part. The Pentagon claims they number no more than 40, of whom a dozen are being force-fed. Given the lack of independent access to Guantanamo, the exact number is impossible to establish.
Like others before it, the protest may have been sparked by complaints that guards were abusing detainees’ copies of the Koran. But even the Pentagon admits the real reason was despair. Inmates were “devastated” by the signal that the administration no longer believed that closing the prison was a realistic priority, Marine General John Kelly told Congress, so “they want to turn the heat up, get it back in the media”. And who can blame them?
By all accounts, the atmosphere within Guantanamo has never been as bleak. The Soviet Union had gulags, “but no Soviet gulag ever had 52 per cent of its prisoners cleared for release,” says Clive Stafford Smith, director of the legal charity Reprieve, who has been representing Guantanamo detainees almost since the place opened in January 2002.
One of his clients is the Saudi-born British resident Shaker Aamer, captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and brought to Guantanamo in February 2002. He has been cleared not once but twice, in 2007 and then by the Obama administration in 2009. But the US won’t let him go, not even back to its trusty ally Britain, where Aamer’s family live. Fluent in English, Mr Aamer is regarded as a “leader” among the detainees. Many suspect that the Americans will never free him, because he knows so much, and would speak out.
Today, even George Orwell would have been pressed to conceive the plight of the 86: cleared for release, but denied freedom, using a hunger strike as their last weapon, only to be kept alive by the very people who will not let them go. On Thursday, Mr Aamer gave the most recent account of events at Guantanamo to Mr Stafford Smith in an hour-long phone conversation, described by his lawyer in a sworn affidavit.
Mr Aamer is participating in the hunger strike, although he is not yet being force-fed. But other harassments abound. He is in Guantanamo’s Camp Five, where “non-compliant” prisoners are held. His health is poor and deteriorating. There is noise throughout the night. It is getting harder to speak to lawyers. Then there are the FCEs, or “forcible cell extractions”, to use the euphemism for being picked up and shackled by a team of six guards who burst into your cell. “They FCE me just to give me water,” Mr Aamer recounted.
Each day, he says, there are 10 to 15 “code yellow” incidents, when a prisoner on hunger strike collapses or passes out. Even contact with lawyers is a mixed blessing. “Each phone call [from a lawyer] is a curse. They hear what I am saying to you and use that against me to make things worse,” he told Mr Stafford Smith. The situation, in short, is grimmer even than during what Mr Aamer calls “Miller time”. For ordinary residents of the US, the phrase advertises a well-known brand of beer. But in the extra-territorial Hades of Guantanamo, the reference is to General Geoffrey Miller, the prison’s second commandant before he was sent to Iraq in August 2003 to advise on “more productive” interrogations of prisoners, that is, to “Gitmo-ise” Iraq.
The hunger strike is succeeding in returning the spotlight to Guantanamo. On the day Mr Stafford Smith talked to Mr Aamer, Chuck Hagel, the Defence Secretary, told Congress he favoured closing the prison, while leading human rights groups wrote to Mr Obama demanding again that Guantanamo be shut and its inmates either released or tried in civilian court. But it seems optimism bordering on insanity to believe these entreaties will succeed where every other has failed.
Mr Aamer, by all accounts, is a proud man not given to self-pity. But by the end of the phone call, Mr Stafford Smith declared, his client seemed to be crying. “They are killing us, so it is hard to keep calm. It’s hard to understand what they are doing, or why. No matter how much I show you I am tough, in reality I am dying inside. If you want us to die, leave us alone. But they do not want us to die, and they do not want us to live like a human being. What is worse than that?” What indeed?
International medical groups have denounced the forced-feeding of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, which invariably involves strapping detainees into restraint chairs (marketed as a “padded cell on wheels” by their manufacturer), pushing a tube up their nose and down their throat, and pumping liquids into their stomach. Although it is considered a method of torture by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the US military insists forced-feeding is a form of “medical intervention” and that the practice is less aggressive than it was.
Forced-feeding first received widespread public attention in the Edwardian era, when it was used against hunger-striking suffragettes who were held down as the instruments were painfully inserted into their bodies, an experience that has been likened to rape. This technique was also performed on hunger-striking Irish Republicans: in 1917, Thomas Ashe died as a result of complications from the procedure.
Forced-feeding in prisons has been outlawed since 1975 when the World Medical Association issued the Declaration of Tokyo, guidelines for physicians concerning torture and other cruel or degrading treatment in relation to detention. The declaration stipulates that: “Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgement concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.”
An inmate hunger strike at Guantanamo prison has entered its 40th day, with more than 100 reportedly taking part. Experts warn of health risks over a strike prompted by the confiscation of prisoners’ belongings and rough handling of Korans.
The prisoners’ lawyers, along with other experts and former detainees, are sounding the alarm over the inmates’ critical condition. “They are indeed threatening their own lives, putting their lives on the line in this heroic effort to express a sense of autonomy, outrage at being imprisoned in what can be characterized as nothing less than the American sort of medieval torture chamber,” anthropologist Mark Mason, who studies the cultural factors behind human suffering, told RT.
“We have here conditions where 166 people are imprisoned, more of half of them cleared, they should be out to the streets, free today,” Mason added. “I frankly cannot describe some of the horrific conditions and treatment and humiliation that many detainees have reported. They have been stripped and required to stand around in cold rooms for hours naked. This is itself a physical stressor, but it is almost unspeakable psychological torture.”
“We are humans, we are not eagles in a bag of skin, we relate to each other, we need human contact and relationships to be healthy psychologically and physically,” he said.
Mason claimed that the US lives in a “distortion zone,” where “people imprisoned in Guantanamo should be free while the president, our former president, vice president and bankers in the US and Wall Street should be in jail.”
US President Barack Obama began his first term by announcing his intention to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Now, just two months into his second term, the prison has entered its 12th year of operation with 166 detainees still languishing behind bars and a reported 130 on a life-threatening hunger strike.
9- to 12-year-old kids detained and tortured in Guantanamo?
Former Guantanamo detainee Murat Kurnaz described to RT the horrible conditions he faced while being detained there, and explained the reasons behind the hunger strike.
“I have been tortured in different kinds of ways. There are no human rights over there. That means they could do whatever they wanted to with us,” Kurnaz said. “They tortured me to force me to sign papers and every time I’ve refused, they kept on torturing me in different kind of ways.”
“They really tried everything to break us including psychological and physical torture. I myself got tortured by electroshocks and waterboarding. I have seen also kids 9 years and 12 years old inside the camp. It was very difficult to watch how those kids getting beaten up in front of me,” he added.
Kurnaz argued that detainees have “many justified reasons” to go on a hunger strike:“It is a bad situation, prisoners want to go to court and want their rights back. They don’t have the opportunity to go to the court or see their families. They do not have the right to write or receive letters.”
The state of legal limbo was also frustrating for Kurnaz, who was determined to be innocent by the US but had to spend an extra five years in detention because Germany refused to take him back.
“Their hunger strikes are the only way they have of making themselves heard. Years and years without any hope of release. Without any real charges,” political writer and activist Sara Flounders told RT.
Lawyers for the Guantanamo prisoners said the men began the hunger strike on February 6 in protest against the alleged confiscation of personal items such as photographs and personal mail, as well as the alleged sacrilegious handling of their Korans during searches of their cells.
The Center for Constitutional Rights said that they have received reports of detainees coughing up blood, losing consciousness, losing more than twenty pounds of weight and being hospitalized. Medical experts have predicted that by the 45th day of a hunger strike, participants can experience hearing loss and potential blindness – on top of the psychological suffering they have endured for more than a decade.
The UN issued a statement this week that the US is violating international human rights law by holding detainees indefinitely and without charge.
I turn with admiration to the masses of our heroic Palestinian people, to our Palestinian leadership, to all forces, parties and national institutions. I salute them for standing by our fight to defend our right to freedom and dignity.
I draw my strength from my people, from all the free people in the world, from friends and the families of the prisoners who continue day and night chanting for freedom and an end to the occupation.
My health has deteriorated dramatically and I’m hung between life and death. My weak body is collapsing but still able to be patient and continue the confrontation. My message is that I will continue until the end, until the last drop of water in my body, until martyrdom. Martyrdom is an honor for me in this battle. My martyrdom is my remaining bomb in the confrontation with the tyrants and the jailers, in the face of the racist policy of the occupation that humiliates our people and exercises against us all means of oppression and repression.
I say to my people: I’m stronger than the occupation army and its racist laws. I, Samer al-Issawi, son of Jerusalem, send you my last will that, in case I fell as a martyr, you will carry my soul as a cry for all the prisoners, man and women, cry for freedom, emancipation and salvation from the nightmare of prisons and their harsh darkness.
My battle is not only for individual freedom. The battle waged by me and by my heroic colleagues, Tariq, Ayman and Ja’affar, is everyone’s battle, the battle of the Palestinian people against the occupation and its prisons. Our goal is to be free and sovereign in our liberated state and in our blessed Jerusalem.
The weak and strained beats of my heart derive their steadfastness from you, the great people. My eyes, which started to lose their sight, draws light from your solidarity and your support of me. My weak voice takes its strength from your voice that is louder than the warden’s voice and higher than the walls.
I’m one of your sons, among thousands of your sons who are prisoners, still languishing steadfasting in the prisons, waiting for an end to be brought to their plight, their pains and the suffering of their families.
The doctors told me I became exposed to stroke because of the disorder of my heartbeats, the shortage of sugar and the drop in blood pressure. My body is full of cold and I can’t sleep because of the continued pain. But despite the extreme fatigue and chronic headaches, as I move on my chair, I’m trying to summon all my resources to continue on the road till its end. There is no going back, only in my victory, because I’m the owner of Right and my detention is invalid and illegal.
Do not be afraid for my heart if it will stop, don’t be afraid for my hands if they will be paralyzed. I am still alive now and tomorrow and after death, because Jerusalem is moving in my blood, in my devotion and my faith.
Samer Issawi has lived for 33 years, 1 month, and 27 days. I hope he lives another day.
He has been on a hunger strike now for six and a half months. Gandhis’ longest hunger strike was 21 days.
The IRA’s Bobby Sands and nine other Irish hunger strikers died in 1981 after strikes lasting from 46 to 73 days.
Issawi’s internal organs are starting to shut down, he can no longer walk, he is reportedly suffering loss of vision and vomiting blood, it is difficult for him talk, and he is increasingly near death. He has lost over half his body weight.
One of the main ideas behind such nonviolent resistance is that world awareness will bring pressure on behalf of the sufferer.
Yet, U.S. news outlets are not covering Issawi’s hunger strike. It appears that the Associated Press has not run a single news story on Issawi’s strike and refuses to answer queries on the subject.
AP’s lack of reporting on the situation is even more inexplicable given that there has been an international campaign on Issawi’s behalf.
There have been banner drops in Washington, D.C, Chicago, Cleveland, Austin, and other parts of the world; demonstrations and vigils in numerous cities; and Issawi’s plight has made it onto Twitter’s world-trending list at least four times this month.
The alleged “crime” for which Issawi is being imprisoned and may die – there has been no trial – is for having allegedly traveled outside Jerusalem. Issawi is one of the Palestinian prisoners released in a prisoner exchange in 2011, and such movement, Israel says, violated the terms of that release. (It is unclear whether Israel has formally charged Issawi.)
However, Issawi supporters point out that Issawi’s “travel” was to an area near Hizma, and Israel does not appear to dispute this, bringing into question Israel’s claimed reason for incarcerating him: Hizma is within Jerusalem’s municipal borders.
Israeli is holding Issawi under “administrative detention,” a system by which Israel holds Palestinian men, women, and even children for as long as the Israeli government wishes without trials or charges; sometimes for decades. Since 2000 Israel has reportedly issued 20,000 such detention orders.
In response to Issawi’s hunger strike, Israel has begun punishing his family. Israel arrested his sister for a period and reportedly cut off water to her house. In early July the Israeli army demolished his brother’s home.
It is difficult to think that if an Israeli soldier were held by Palestinians that the Associated Press would not run a single story about it. (AP ran many dozens of stories on Israeli tank gunner Gilad Shalit when he was held in Gaza.)
It is even more difficult to imagine that if an Israeli held by Palestinians (none are) had been on a hunger strike – let alone one that had lasted months and put him near death – the person would not have been the subject of a single AP report.
Moreover, Issawi is just one of a multitude of Palestinian hunger strikers, almost all ignored by U.S. media. Another, Ayman Sharawna, whose fast was interrupted for a short period, has been on a strike that, in total, is even longer that Issawi’s.
Amnesty International has also been inexplicably negligent.
I have just been informed that Amnesty International plans to issue an announcement about Issawi today. If it does so, this will be its first one on Issawi. In fact, during a hunger strike that lasted over six months, queries to Amnesty and searches of both the American and British websites, have turned up only one mention of him – in the last paragraph of an alert about other prisoners posted on the British site. It is not on the U.S. site.
Phone calls and emails over the past week to Amnesty’s Washington DC, New York, and London offices failed to elicit any information on Issawi or Amnesty’s decision not to alert the public to his situation. (Finally, unable to obtain a response from Amnesty, a few days ago I posted their lack of coverage on Facebook.)
While pro-Israel groups constantly attack Amnesty for insufficiently taking the Israeli line, in reality Amnesty’s record on the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan is often significantly at odds with the organization’s work on behalf of prisoners and human rights in other areas.
There have been analyses and objections to Amnesty actions that appeared to, in the words of one article, “shill for Mideast Wars.” Its executive director Suzanne Nossel spoke in favor of what she termed “hard force,” e.g. wars.
A lengthy article in CounterPunch examined Amnesty’s emphasis (and inaccurate coverage) on the Pussy Riot issue, and compared this to Amnesty’s lack of coverage on the incarceration of whistle blower Julian Assange and on other significant cases.
A 1988 analysis on human rights organizations’ work on Israel-Palestine found a number of shortcomings in Amnesty’s work, and in January 2012 Dutch-English writer Paul de Rooij complained of Amnesty’s “double standards” on Palestinian human rights.
In an email exchange with Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, de Rooij wrote that Amnesty’s “unwillingness to publish lists” of Palestinian Prisoners of Conscience and the extreme rarity of applying this designation to Palestinian prisoners “indicate that Palestinians can’t expect much from Amnesty International.”
De Rooij continued: “The brutal treatment and dispossession of Palestinians has been going on for decades; the situation is chronic and it has been systematic. But check for yourself in Amnesty’s reports or press releases: when was the last time that AI unambiguously indicated that Israeli actions amounted to crimes against humanity?”
De Rooij answered his own question: “You can count such instances with less than half the fingers on your hand.”
Susanne Nossel left Amnesty in January of this year and her replacement has not yet been chosen, so it is possible that its actions will change.
In the meantime, Samer Issawi’s life seems to be hanging by a thread.