Detainees Launch Non-Violent Resistance Behind Pentagon’s Iron Veil

by Tanya Theriault

The veil of secrecy at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when tugged at, continues to reveal the inhumane treatment of detainees held there. Since January 2002, the US has been imprisoning men (at present 505) from some 30 to 40 countries—but primarily Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen—indefinitely, without legal process, as “enemy combatants,” so as to dodge the requirements of the Geneva Conventions on torture. Reports of torture and abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo continue to come from a variety of sources. Amnesty International has called the detention of the inmates “unlawful and arbitrary,” and found conditions at the prison to be “cruel, inhumane and degrading.” The International Committee of the Red Cross took the rare, bold step of making public the abuse and mental deterioration of inmates as a result of their indefinite and often solitary imprisonment, calling interminable detention of prisoners “tantamount to torture.” What is hidden about the detention camp at Guantanamo should terrify us, as what we know now to be true makes us tremble in shame.

In a mounting effort to address their abusive treatment and detention without charge or trial, many of the prisoners have engaged in hunger strikes. The Department of Defense (DOD) has maintained sole control of who can enter the camps and under what conditions—including restricting legal access—and what those who do enter can hear or say about it. For this reason, the existence of such protests by prisoners has been little known. With the recent release of internal DOD memos and FBI interviews with detainees (obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under freedom of information legislation), as well as statements from former detainees and accounts from prisoners’ counsel, it is now evident that detainees have been protesting their detention by hunger strikes and in other ways since 2002.

Using these resources, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) issued a report in September, “The Guantanamo Prisoner Hunger Strikes and Protests,” detailing the history of prisoners’ acts of protest. CCR is a New York-based, non-profit legal organization representing 40 of the prisoners. Over a year and a half has passed since the US Supreme Court, in Rasul vs. Bush (argued by CCR), decided that detainees can challenge their detention and the conditions of their imprisonment in federal court. It is evident by the increasing intensity of the hunger strikes, that prisoners’ frustrations and despair has grown as the government has stalled any legal progress.

According to the report, one or more hunger strikes occurred in early 2002 over the desecration of the Qu’ran by a military police officer (MP). For Catholics, the analogous act is mistreatment of the Eucharist. British citizen and released detainee, Rhuhel Ahmed recalled one incident, “I saw a guard walked into a detainee’s cell, searched through the Koran and dropped it on the floor. The detainee told him to pick it up and put it in its holder. I remember the guard looked at the Koran on the floor and said ‘this’ and then kicked it. Everyone started shouting and banging the doors. The guard ran out of the cell and the entire camp was on lockdown for half a day. On that day there was a hunger strike [that lasted] for three days.”

The report states, “A former interrogator at Guantanamo also confirmed the released detainees’ accounts of such hunger strike and the military’s public apology over the handling of the Qu’ran.”

Later that year, up to 194 detainees were participating in rolling hunger strikes over a two-month period to protest what military officials acknowledged as “their murky future.” Three detainees were given IV fluids forcibly. Beginning a pattern, the military downplayed the significance and gravity of the hunger strikes. In a prepared statement for the Guantanamo Joint Task Force, Marine Maj. Steve Cox asserted that “by no means is this an organized, concerted effort by the camp’s detainee population but merely a demonstration of some of the detainees’ displeasure over the uncertainty of their future.”

A June/July 2005 hunger strike was made public on July 20th by two former Afghan prisoners. According to attorneys from the DC-based law firm Sherman and Sterling, which represents forty prisoners, in addition “to starvation until death,” the protesters planned to boycott showers, recreation time, and called for “no violence, by hand or even words, to anyone, including the guards.” The military acknowledges 52 men were involved in the strike, but lawyers put the number closer to 200. While US Senators were getting summer show tours of the camp, CCR reports that close to 50 men were on IV hydration and that, overwhelmed, medics ceased regular medical visits.

The strike ended on July 28 after the prisoners were promised better access to books, bottled drinking water and a prisoner grievance committee. The committee was soon after dissolved. In a statement given to his lawyer, Binyam Mohammed, a British prisoner, said: “The administration promised that if we gave them ten days, they would bring the prison into compliance with the Geneva Conventions… It is now August 11. They have betrayed our trust (again). Hisham from Tunisia was savagely beaten in his interrogation and they publicly desecrated the Qu’ran (again). Saad from Kuwait was ERF’d (visited by the Extreme Reaction Force) for refusing to go to interrogation because the female interrogator had sexually humiliated him… Therefore, the strike must go on.”

By mid-September of this year, lawyers for the prisoners reported that as many as 210 prisoners, nearly half, were involved in a hunger strike that began in early August. At that point, the Washington Post (Sept. 13) reported that eighteen were hospitalized; thirteen were being force-fed by nasal tubes and five by IV hydration. The strike had spread throughout all five camps within the detention center. Initially, the Army responded with the claim that only 76 prisoners were on a hunger strike, then increased that number to 130 the following week. A Reuters report issued on Sept. 21 relayed that the US military’s count of hunger strikers dropped to 36 from 130 the following week; prisoners’ lawyers found that hard to believe.

The World Medical Association (WMA), of which the American Medical Association is a member, declared in 1991 that hunger strikers, mentally competent as determined by the attending physician, and informed of all medical consequences regarding long-term withdrawal from food and hydration, cannot be force-fed. The physician is morally obligated to interview the hunger striker daily and to inform the striker’s family. According to The Guardian of Sept. 9, a military spokesperson stated: “They are being held in the same standards as US prison standards… [T]hey don’t allow people to kill themselves via starvation.” A military spokesperson claimed that prisoners are monitored 24 hours a day. If that is true, the military has been aware of these life-threatening strikes and has failed to inform the families of detainees or their lawyers.

Hunger strikers are refusing to sign refusal-of-food/water waiver forms. There have been reports of prisoners pulling out their IVs and nasal tubes—and consequently restrained beyond leg shackles and handcuffs. In a statement given to his lawyer (quoted in The Guardian), Binyam Mohammed said, “I do not plan to stop until I either die or we are respected. People will definitely die. Bobby Sands petitioned the British government to stop the illegitimate internment of Irishmen without trial. He had the courage of his convictions and he starved himself to death. Nobody should believe for one moment that my brothers here have less courage.” The NY Times reported Sept. 17: “A senior military official…speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the situation as greatly troublesome for the camp’s authorities and said they had tried several ways to end the hunger strike, without success.”

The detention camp at Guantanamo is the jewel of the US military’s semantic effort to distort the truth. There had been 350 reported suicide attempts in the first year and a half of its operation. That number slowed remarkably when the US began distinguishing between what is a “suicide attempt” and what they call “manipulative, self-injurious behavior.” The military’s definition of a hunger striker is one who has refused to take at least nine consecutive meals in 72 hours, which is one reason why the lawyers’ count of hunger strikers and the military’s differ so dramatically. The term “force-feeding” has been replaced by “assisted feeding.” By narrowing definitions, potential problems no longer exist.

Clive Stafford-Smith, a British human rights lawyer, offered a statement from his client, a British refugee and Guantanamo prisoner, in an Oct. 1 article in The Nation. “I am dying a slow death in this solitary prison cell,” said his client Omar Deghayes, “I have no rights, no hope. So why not take my destiny into my own hands, and die for a principle?”

In the face of this torture and the prisoners’ desperation, the silence of US citizens, especially that of the US clergy and other moral leaders, is shocking. As people of faith, we are called to witness to the truth, and the truth is that the people held in Guantanamo Bay are being tortured by our military, and our government is trying to hide it. Do we have the strength and courage to make this end?

This story originally appeared in the December 2005 issue The Catholic Worker, newspaper of the New York City branch of the Catholic Worker movement, 36 East 1st St., New York, NY 10003


CCR Guantanamo Action Center

CCR report, “The Guantanamo Prisoner Hunger Strikes and Protests,” Setember 2005

From our weblog:

Hunger strikers pledge to die in Gitmo

Pentagon admits Koran desecration

Minors held, beaten at Gitmo?

Gonzales may face war crimes charges in Germany

Rasul v Bush: one year later

Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution