Guantanamo hunger strike renews debates over indefinite detention


In this June 27, 2006 file photo, U.S. military guards walk within Camp Delta military-run prison, at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. (Brennan Linsley/AP/AP)

Twice a day at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, guards take a group of detainees from their cells, one at a time, to a camp clinic or a private room on their block.

The detainees are offered a hot meal or a liquid nutritional supplement, and, if they refuse, they are strapped into a chair. A nurse then passes a tube through their noses and down into their stomachs; for one to two hours, they are fed a drip of Ensure while a Navy corpsman watches.

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.

President Obama on Tuesday took questions from reporters at the White House on Tuesday, discussing Syria, the Boston bombings, closing Guantanamo, immigration reform, and Jason Collins. (The Washington Post)

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.”

The White House would still need to engage Congress so as to not cause rancor among lawmakers, leading them to ban all transfers, said an administration official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The official noted that 56 of the 86 cleared detainees are from Yemen. In 2010, after a plot to bring down a U.S. commercial airline over Detroit was found to originate in Yemen, the administration suspended transfers to that country because of concerns about the security there and the possibility that detainees could reengage in extremist activity. Any decision to lift that suspension would require the administration to help Yemeni authorities manage a staggered return of their nationals.

Warner said progress on transfers, coupled with a willingness by the military to negotiate with detainees on matters such as the handling of the Koran, could end the hunger strike.

For now, however, detainees probably have little interest in scaling back their protest. Like others who have refused food, they know the hunger strike is one of their only tools of resistance.

“It’s a form of fighting back,” said Padraig O’Malley, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the author of “Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair.” “It draws attention. And the closer they come to death, the more attention they draw.”

O’Malley said the politics of hunger striking were first articulated by Terence MacSwiney, an Irish nationalist and lord mayor of Cork who died in 1920 after a 74-day hunger strike. “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will conquer,” MacSwiney said.

The growing number of detainees being force-fed has intensified focus on whether medical personnel should participate. Under current policy, when a hunger striker falls to 85 percent of his ideal body weight and continues to refuse food, a military doctor must write a prescription for what officials at Guantanamo Bay call an“enteral feed.”

The American Medical Association and the International Committee of the Red Cross have said they oppose force-feeding. They cite a declaration by the World Medical Association that states that “where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.”

Obama defended the practice Tuesday, saying, “I don’t want these individuals to die.”

The Pentagon has not responded to a letter from the AMA on the issue, but Lt. Col. Samuel House, a spokesman for Joint Task Force Guantanamo, said the military wants to preserve lives.

Since 2005, several detainees at Guantanamo Bay have been on a hunger strike and force-fed, House said.

But the scale of the current protest has led the military to move additional medical personnel onto the base to monitor detainees and cope with the rising numbers of forced feedings. There is nearly one nurse or corpsman for every detainee, he said.

No one is on the hunger strike at Camp 7, a high-security, classified facility that holds 14 high-value detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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