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Confined to a dungeon above the ground

April 20, 2007 | Page 5

NICOLE COLSON reports on a new wave of hunger strikes by desperate detainees.

MORE DETAINEES at the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are so desperate to end their suffering that they are going on hunger strike--willing to risk death if it means an end to their imprisonment.

According to press reports, at least 13 prisoners are on hunger strike in protest of the harsh conditions at "Camp 6," a new maximum-security section of the camp. Two have reportedly been refusing food since August 2005, while most of the others began striking in January or February.

Most are forced to undergo daily force-feedings at the hands of their U.S. captors--an often brutal and dehumanizing process that lawyers and human rights advocates say is meant to make detainees suffer more.

According to "Cruel and Inhuman: Conditions of Isolation for Detainees at Guantánamo Bay," a report released earlier this month by Amnesty International, the situation inside Guantánamo is actually becoming worse for detainees--particularly the approximately 160 (out of a total of 385) detainees who are thought to be housed at Camp 6.

According to the report, Camp 6 "has created even harsher and apparently more permanent conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation in which detainees are confined to almost completely sealed, individual cells, with minimal contact with any other human being."

What else to read

Amnesty International's new report "Cruel and Inhuman: Conditions of Isolation for Detainees at Guantánamo Bay" can be read online. For more information on Guantánamo and the legal challenges against it, see the Center for Constitutional Rights' Guantánamo Action Center.

Former detainee Moazzam Begg's book Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantánamo, Bagram and Kandahar is a powerful indictment of the hidden U.S. prison system around the world and the "war on terror." Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray detail the facts about the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo: What the World Should Know.

 

Prisoners in Camp 6 are confined to 8-by-10-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day, and are allowed out only infrequently to shower or to exercise in enclosed areas surrounded by high concrete-and-wire walls. They are not able to speak to each other except by shouting through a narrow gap at the bottom of their steel cell doors. There are no outside windows, and detainees have reported that air conditioning is left on high--making the metal cells intolerably cold.

Amnesty notes that U.S. authorities have described Camp 6 as a "state-of-the-art modern facility," which is supposedly "more comfortable" for the detainees, but one detainee said Camp was a "dungeon above the ground."

"They're just sitting on a powder keg down there," lawyer Sabin Willett recently told the New York Times. "You're going to have an insane asylum."

It's no wonder that some detainees see a hunger strike as their only option. As 27-year-old Yemeni hunger striker Adnan Farhan Abdullatif reportedly told his lawyer in late February, "My wish is to die. We are living in a dying situation."

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RECENTLY RELEASED military documents showed that 13 detainees were on hunger strike--though last month there were at least 17, and lawyers for the prisoners say their clients report as many as 40 people on hunger strike.

Naval Cmdr. Robert Durand, a Guantánamo spokesman, dismissed the hunger strike and prisoners' complaints as "propaganda," telling reporters that hunger strikes are a tactic taught in the al-Qaeda training manual--and that the number of strikers has dropped in the past when the media stopped covering them.

But Durand left out the main reason the U.S. was able to break down hunger strikers previously--brutal force feedings.

There have been several hunger strikes at Guantánamo since the camp opened in 2001. The largest occurred in 2005, when at least 130 detainees were classified as hunger strikers--defined as having missed nine consecutive meals.

Most detainees were eventually broken from their strike through force-feeding techniques--in which they were strapped into restraint chairs, had feeding tubes inserted and then were left strapped down for lengthy periods of time.

Lawyers for some detainees described U.S. military personnel violently inserting feeding tubes to the point of drawing blood, and Physicians for Human Rights called the force feedings of inmates a "brutal and inhumane" tactic that violates international medical codes of ethics.

Sudanese detainee Sami al-Hajj, a former cameraman for al-Jazeera, had been on hunger strike for more than 95 days as Socialist Worker went to press--and was being routinely force-fed.

"At nine o'clock in the morning, they force feed him, and he is strapped to a chair," his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, recently told Reuters. "They force a tube up his nose. It is excruciatingly painful. That lasts about an hour...Three times so far, according to what Sami has told me, they have put the tube in his lung...and that is effectively drowning him."

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IN RECENT weeks, the Bush administration has pointed to the supposed confessions of several high-profile detainees as proof that the system at Guantánamo is working.

During the start of Combat Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) for 14 "high-value" detainees last month, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged "number three" man in the al-Qaeda network, was said to have confessed to being involved in planning for more than 30 terrorist plots, including the September 11 attacks; personally killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002; and plotting the assassinations of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as Pope John Paul II.

Walid Mohammed bin Attash is said to have confessed at his tribunal to helping plan the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Australian detainee David Hicks also entered a guilty plea March 26 to a charge of providing material support to terrorists.

But as lawyers and human rights advocates point out, any confessions from detainees are questionable because of the conditions they've been exposed to in Guantánamo and elsewhere.

Both Mohammed and bin Attash, for example, were "rendered"--sent to other countries known to use torture for interrogations, before being brought to Guantánamo last year.

Additionally, though CSRTs are supposed to determine whether a detainee should be declared an "enemy combatant"--which means they then can be held indefinitely--the process is a kangaroo court. Defense lawyers and the media are barred from the proceedings, and prisoners aren't allowed to see "classified" evidence against them.

Last month, after being held at Guantánamo for more than five years, David Hicks pleaded guilty to a single, relatively minor count in exchange for a plea bargain that will allow him to return to Australia to serve out the remaining nine months of a 7-year sentence.

To get his plea deal, however, Hicks--who has grown his hair to waist length in order to block out the bright lights that shine 24 hours a day in his cell--had to agree to withdraw allegations that he had been abused during his detention, to a one-year ban on speaking to the media, and never to sue the U.S.

"It's a way to get home," Hicks' father Terry told Australian radio. "He was desperate, he just wanted to get out. He's had five years of absolute hell, and I think anyone in that position, if they were offered anything, they would possibly take it

Another glimpse into the bizarre situation of the detainees came when Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, another "high-value" prisoner, went before his CSRT on March 14. U.S. authorities claim al-Nashiri confessed to having a role in the bombing of the USS Cole. Yet at his CSRT, al-Nashiri said he confessed only after being tortured.

Since the Bush administration doesn't allow prisoners to detail allegations of torture publicly, however, the following appears in the "transcript" of al-Nashiri's tribunal:

PRESIDENT [of the tribunal]: Please describe the methods that were used.

DETAINEE: [CENSORED] What else do I want to say? [CENSORED] There were doing so many things. What else did they do? [CENSORED] After that, another method of torture began. [CENSORED] They used to ask me questions, and the investigator after that used to laugh. And I used to answer the answer that I knew. And if I didn't replay what I heard, he used to [CENSORED].

As the New York Times commented, "Officials defended this censorship by arguing that interrogation methods are so secret they cannot be discussed, even by the prisoner. But they also said that al-Qaeda members are trained to claim torture, and that Mr. Nashiri lied. If so, why censor the transcript?...

"Tragically, the most likely answer is to spare United States intelligence agents and their bosses, who could face charges if the Military Commissions Act is ever repealed or rewritten. The law gives a retroactive carte blanche to American interrogators for any abuse they may have committed."

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month decided not to hear a case brought by several Guantánamo detainees to determine whether the 2006 Military Commissions Act--which took away detainees' right to a trial in U.S. courts--violates the Constitution.

As Vincent Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents several detainees, said in a statement, "The Supreme Court has once more delayed the resolution of the fate of these detainees--three-quarters of whom the military admits it will never charge--who have languished without any meaningful way to challenge their detention for more than five years.

"The processes the government put in place are a sham--they allow the use of evidence obtained through torture and no real review of the facts...We hope our clients survive until they finally get their day in court."

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