Hunger-striking for freedom and dignity

Nicole Colson reports on a hunger strike by Guantánamo detainees that continues to spread, even as prisoners endure force-feedings and other inhumane treatment.

A detainee under guard at Guantánamo Bay (David P. Coleman)A detainee under guard at Guantánamo Bay (David P. Coleman)

"I'VE BEEN on a hunger strike since February 10 and have lost well over 30 pounds. I will not eat until they restore my dignity."

Those were the words of Samir Naji al-Hasan Moqbel, who has been a prisoner at the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay since 2002. He, along with a growing number of the camp's detainees, are starving themselves--the only avenue of protest that they feel they have against their never-ending captivity at the hands of the U.S. government.

U.S. officials now reluctantly admit that at least 92 prisoners are participating in the hunger strike--but lawyers for the detainees say the vast majority of the camp's 166 prisoners are taking part.

The hunger strike began in February. According to reports, prisoners in the lower-security Camp Six, where prisoners live communally, were offended by aggressive searches, during which guards desecrated prisoners' Korans by mishandling them, they said. Officials deny the claims.

Lawyers for detainees also acknowledge that frustration has been growing since the re-election of Barack Obama--the man whose promises as a presidential candidate to shut down Guantánamo are all but forgotten today. Additionally, in early January, guards fired a round of rubber bullets into a soccer field after detainees threw rocks at a guard who had pointed his weapon at a detainee, escalating tensions.

As al-Hasan Moqbel explained to his lawyers, who in turn passed on his words to the New York Times, he and other detainees have become caught up in a soul-crushing legal limbo--cleared for release, but still held because the Obama administration refuses to release them:

I could have been home years ago--no one seriously thinks I am a threat--but still I am here. Years ago, the military said I was a "guard" for Osama bin Laden, but this was nonsense, like something out of the American movies I used to watch. They don't even seem to believe it anymore. But they don't seem to care how long I sit here, either.

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INITIALLY, MILITARY officials tried to pass off the hunger strike as detainees putting on a show for reporters--including suggesting that "Code Yellows," in which prisoners fainted, were simply a show for the benefit of outsiders. They said prisoners were sneaking food to each other in order to confuse guards about who was and wasn't on hunger strike.

Capt. Robert Durand, a Guantánamo spokesperson, complained to the New York Times last month that the strike was an "orchestrated event intended to garner media attention."

But as al-Hasan Moqbel stated, "One man here weighs just 77 pounds. Another, 98. Last thing I knew, I weighed 132, but that was a month ago."

Durand and other U.S. officials claim that prisoners at Guantánamo, especially those in the less-secure Camp Six, have nothing to complain about. They point to "amenities"--like art classes, access to a soccer field and PlayStation games. But no amount of soccer and video games can make up for a lack of freedom.

Military officials act almost as though these prisoners are ungrateful--that they should be thanking the U.S. for keeping them locked up, away from their families and homes and deprived of basic liberties and human rights for, in some cases, more than a decade. Guantánamo detainees owe their captors nothing--least of all their compliance.

More than half of the prisoners at Guantánamo--87 detainees--have actually been cleared for release by the U.S. government. Even the U.S. admits those detainees are not terrorist threats and should not be at Guantánamo. Yet because of politics, and the spineless complacency of the Obama administration, these prisoners continue to languish.

Fifty-seven of those cleared for release--including Samir Naji al-Hasan Moqbel--are Yemeni nationals. In 2010, the administration announced a moratorium on releases of Yemeni prisoners after an ABC News report falsely claimed that "two former Guantánamo prisoners were amongst the leaders of the al-Qaeda-inspired group in Yemen that claimed responsibility for a failed plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit," according to journalist Andy Worthington.

The right-wing unleashed predictable howls of outrage, despite the fact that the report was false. Almost immediately, the Obama administration caved, announcing that no more Yemeni detainees would be released.

As Glenn Greenwald noted in the Guardian, "The last detainee to die at the camp, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, who allegedly killed himself in September, was a Yemeni who had never been charged with a crime and had been cleared for release, but, when it was apparent he was going nowhere, 'had regularly gone on hunger strikes and been sedated or placed on suicide watch.'"

Claims by the Obama administration that it cannot act to free Guantánamo inmates because Congress has blocked measures to release detainees are utterly disingenuous. As Glenn Greenwald and others have noted, despite campaign promises, Obama never actually proposed closing Guantánamo. Instead, his administration floated the idea of transferring Guantánamo prisoners to a defunct prison in Illinois. Once Republicans objected, the Obama administration dropped even that plan.

As Greenwald noted:

The detainees there are not protesting in desperation because of their geographical location: we want to be in Illinois rather than a Cuban island. They are sacrificing their health and their lives in response to being locked in a cage for more than a decade without charges: a system Obama, independent of what Congress did, intended to preserve.

"The only reason I am still here," said al-Hasan Moqbel, "is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to Yemen. This makes no sense. I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one. I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen's president do something, that is what I risk every day...I will agree to whatever it takes in order to be free."

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AS MORE prisoners have joined the current hunger strike, tensions have continued to escalate. Prisoners in Camp Six have taken what collective action they can--covering the video cameras in their cells, for example.

On April 12, guards carried out a predawn raid in which hunger strikers from the group setting of Camp Six were forced into individual 8-by-12 foot cells in Camp Five .

During the raid, guards fired rubber bullets at prisoners who resisted moving into individual cells. "I know for sure that one detainee was hit but the injuries were minor, just some bruises," Col. Greg Julian, a Southern Command spokesman, rationalized to the Guardian, which reported that guards used a modified shotgun shell that fires small rubber pellets as well as type of bean-bag projectile.

According to a report last month from Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg, the military is forcing the hunger strikers into these cells not for actual security purposes, but in order to more easily conduct force feedings.

Such feedings horrifically brutal, not to mention a violation of international law condemned by the Red Cross, Amnesty International and other human rights groups..

In the New York Times, al-Hasan Moqbel described the terrible brutality of his own force-feedings at the hands of his U.S. captors:

Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I'm sleeping.

There are so many of us on hunger strike now that there aren't enough qualified medical staff members to carry out the force-feedings; nothing is happening at regular intervals. They are feeding people around the clock just to keep up.

During one force-feeding the nurse pushed the tube about 18 inches into my stomach, hurting me more than usual, because she was doing things so hastily. I called the interpreter to ask the doctor if the procedure was being done correctly or not.

It was so painful that I begged them to stop feeding me. The nurse refused to stop feeding me. As they were finishing, some of the "food" spilled on my clothes. I asked them to change my clothes, but the guard refused to allow me to hold on to this last shred of my dignity.

When they come to force me into the chair, if I refuse to be tied up, they call the [Extreme Reaction Force] team. So I have a choice. Either I can exercise my right to protest my detention, and be beaten up, or I can submit to painful force-feeding.

At one point, sick in the prison hospital and refusing to be force-fed, al-Hasan Moqbel was tied to his hospital bed for 26 hours. He was not permitted to use the bathroom. Instead, he wrote, "They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray."

As more hunger strikers risk their lives in order to demand some measure of dignity and human rights, we should hear their pleas--and hold the criminals in the Obama administration to account for their own willingness to throw away these men's lives.