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Detainees choose death over barbaric conditions
Hunger strike at Guantánamo

September 30, 2005 | Page 2

NICOLE COLSON reports on the latest protest by desperate detainees at the U.S. gulag in Guantánamo.

DETAINEES AT the U.S. gulag in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have become so desperate that many are choosing to face death.

Since August 8, as many as 210 of the more then 500 detainees at Guantánamo Bay have gone on hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention, lack of legal rights and the brutal conditions under which they are held.

The Pentagon, trying to downplay the seriousness of the situation, has said that the number participating in the strike is 105. But military officials acknowledge that at least 20 detainees, whose health has been seriously compromised, are being kept at the camp's hospital, handcuffed, with their legs restrained, while they are force-fed through nasal tubes.

Military spokesman Major Jeffrey Weir refuses to call it "force feeding," however. The Pentagon prefers the term "assisted feeding," he told the New York Times. "We will not let them starve themselves to the point of causing harm to themselves," Weir said.

But the real "harm" to detainees has come from the inhumane conditions at the gulag where prisoners of the U.S. "war on terror" are kept.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents many of the detainees, the Pentagon's "concern" for the detainees doesn't extend far enough to disclose the identity of the prisoners participating in the hunger strike, or the identity of those who are hospitalized and being force-fed.

Thomas Wilner, a lawyer who represents 11 Kuwaitis detained at the camp, said government lawyers had initially told him they didn't believe any of his clients were involved. Later, the government said that three of his clients were participating. But when Wilner visited the camp in person, he found that 10 of his clients were on hunger strike. One, Abdullah al-Kandari, had not eaten for 15 days, and "was pale, bleary-eyed, disoriented, barely audible and had lost considerable weight," Wilner told the New York Times.

Detainees' desperate family members aren't being told if their loved ones are involved, either. "It is astounding that men in the custody of the U.S. military are willing to strike until they are afforded a fair hearing or starve to death," CCR attorney Gitanjali Gutierrez said in a statement. "But the most appalling aspect of the hunger strike is the [Defense Department's] refusal to share any information with the families about what is happening to their sons, husbands and fathers. It's a shocking degree of inhumanity."

Groups of Guantánamo prisoners, subject to constant surveillance under the harshest of conditions, have gone on hunger strikes repeatedly since early 2002, when a group of prisoners first refused food after a U.S. guard reportedly kicked a copy of the Koran. In August 2003, there was a mass suicide attempt, with 23 prisoners attempting to hang themselves in their cells, using clothing or other items during one eight-day period.

This latest hunger strike follows one that dozens of prisoners staged in late June and July. According to attorneys, at that time, prisoners called for "a peaceful, nonviolent strike" to press their demands for respect for their religion, "fair trials with proper legal representation," "proper human food and clean water," the right to contact loved ones, and the right to "see sunlight, and not be forced to go months without seeing daylight."

While Pentagon officials claim only 52 prisoners participated in the strike, according to the CCR, as many as 200 prisoners were going without food. At one point in July, the strike became so widespread that medics couldn't manage the need and decided to stop making regular medical calls. Some prisoners spent 26 days without food, and several had to be hospitalized.

And the response of U.S. military? Detainee Shaker Aamer--a British resident who hasn't seen his wife or four small children in more than three years--says that he was told by military personnel: "Do you think the world will ever learn of your hunger strike? We will never let them know...We care nothing if one of you dies."

Yet at the same time the hunger strike was happening, the Pentagon was conducting more than a dozen taxpayer-funded "field trips" to the prison camp for dozens of U.S. politicians. "A bipartisan mix of Republicans and Democrats from across the nation--even Miami's police chief--have gone on the Pentagon's choreographed, chaperoned day trips and come home with souvenirs," the Miami Herald reported last month.

During the tours, the politicians were allowed to glimpse only the least restrictive of the prison's five camps, and were prohibited from speaking directly to any detainees.

Back home, they sang the praises of Guantánamo. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) lauded the military's "courtesies and professionalism." After his July trip, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told MSNBC, "There are some very nasty folks in there, to say the least...The people who are not compliant, who do not behave, who do not respond to any kind of interrogation and who cause a lot of trouble...They aren't getting ice cream."

In fact, human rights activists who have visited prisoners at the camp say that the vast majority suffer terrible conditions--shackled or housed in small cells for days at a time; routinely refused contact with family and lawyers; and subjected to brutal interrogations, with multiple cases of documented physical and psychological abuse.

Military officials eventually brought an end to the June-July hunger strike by promising to allow the establishment of a six-member prisoners' grievance committee to negotiate with prison officials, and to bring the prison camp into compliance with the Geneva Conventions. But the Pentagon reneged on the deal--and placed members of the prisoners' committee in isolation.

Last month, the vicious beating of several prisoners by the camp's "Extreme Reaction Force" touched off the latest hunger strike.

Detainee Binyam Mohammed explained to the CCR, "We ask only for justice: treat us, as promised, under the rules of the Geneva Conventions for Civilian Prisoners while we are held, and either try us fairly for a valid criminal charge, or set us free."

Clive Stafford Smith, a British lawyer who was visiting the camp when the most recent hunger strike began, told the New York Times that his client Omar Deghayes explained: "Look, I'm dying a slow death in this place as it is. I don't have any hope of fair treatment, so what have I got to lose?"

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