Those who have experienced force-feeding have described it as painful. But, as the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are well aware, fasting and then enduring the procedure can also bring political advantage.
From British-run prisons in Ireland to detention facilities in Israel, the hunger strike has long been a political weapon wielded by the imprisoned or the powerless. With their protest, the 100 men refusing food at Guantanamo Bay — 23 of whom are being fed via nasogastric tube — have pushed the largely forgotten issue of their indefinite detention back on Washington’s agenda.
The strike has not only energized rights activists who have long campaigned for the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but also compelled the Obama administration to grapple with an issue that had been effectively abandoned. The president said Tuesday that he will renew efforts to shut the detention center — a challenge that, if anything, is more politically demanding than it was on his second full day in office, Jan. 22, 2009, when he signed an executive order to close it.
The protest also has reopened a debate about whether it is ethical for medical personnel at Guantanamo Bay to force-feed detainees.
The hunger strike began in early February over allegations that the guard force improperly handled Korans during searches — an accusation that the military strenuously denies. But the number of hunger strikes has since skyrocketed, and the protest has taken on broader meaning for detainees seeking to demonstrate against the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promise to close Guantanamo Bay.
White House officials said that Obama is considering appointing a senior State Department official to oversee the transfer of detainees who have been cleared for repatriation or resettlement — the post is vacant — and that he will accelerate efforts to start a periodic review process for others being held without charge.
There are 166 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 86 of whom have been cleared for transfer by an interagency task force. The process of slowly emptying the facility by sending detainees home or finding them third countries in which to live has been moribund for a year.
The administration blames the paralysis on congressional restrictions, but the defense secretary can still act by certifying that a particular transfer is in the national security interests of the United States. Attorneys for the detainees said the administration should move quickly to exercise that option.
“Let’s start with the 86; there can be no argument about that,” said Carlos Warner of the federal public defender’s office in the Northern District of Ohio, which represents 11 of the detainees. “There could be transfers home in one month, two months.”