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Beatings, Attempted Suicides and Deliberate Starvation: The Dystopic Hell of Guantanamo Bay

The mass hunger strike at the notorious prison camp is shining a light on the festering issue of indefinite detention.

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Photo Credit: Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons


Colonel John Bogdan’s arrival at Guantanamo Bay meant trouble for the prisoners who had been locked up there for over a decade, many of them without ever being charged with a crime. His punitive actions sparked the first mass hunger strike at Guantanamo since 2006. In turn, the strike is shining a light on the festering issue of indefinite detention without charge, and the Obama administration’s failure to close the prison that has become a symbol of the lawlessness of America’s “war on terror.”

Bogdan, who served in Iraq and took over operations at the prison camp in June 2012, embarked on a campaign of harassment directed at the prisoners, according to published accounts by attorneys for Guantanamo prisoners.

He had members of the Joint Detention Group, the military unit that runs the prison, storm Camp 6, the name given for the prison area where most of the detainees live. (In response to the hunger strike, some detainees have reportedly been moved to Camp 5, an area of the camp for “non-compliant” detainees that has been criticized for small cells, bright lights and foul smells. Camp 6 is the most permissive area of the camps, where prisoners live communally.) Temperatures in the prison cells were lowered to 62 degrees.

“Bogdan brought a tough-guy approach to detention operations and has ruled the camps with an iron fist,” one attorney who works with Guantanamo prisoners said in a statement published by the Huffington Post. “Marked by displays of power for power’s sake, his approach has led to mayhem in the camps.” One Yemeni detainee recently stated that “we are in danger. One of the soldiers fired on one of the brothers a month ago.”

On February 6, Bogdan ordered a search that led directly to the ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay that's making headlines around the world.

Military guards searched prison cells and confiscated personal letters, photos and mail prisoners had received from their lawyers. But the biggest indignity for the prisoners was a search of their Qu’rans, the Muslim holy book. The U.S. military says that they suspected contraband or weapons might be hidden in the Qu’rans, a claim that has not been substantiated and that lawyers for Guantanamo detainees strongly deny. The government says its interpreters--many of whom are Muslim and don’t make up the prison guard force--carried out the Qu’ran searches, but the prisoners don't care; they say the searches constitute religious desecration.

The Qu’ran searches were the last straw for the 166 detainees, and most of them have now joined the hunger strike, according to their attorneys. The U.S. military admits that there are 42 participants under what they define as a hunger strike. Their definition states that a prisoner is hunger-striking when he deliberately misses nine consecutive meals. The military has taken to force-feeding the prisoners in response to their deliberate act of starvation.

The protest, which seeks to end the Qu’ran searches, started in February and has also morphed beyond just focusing on the perceived desecration of their holy books. Some detainees have now taken to protesting against their indefinite detention. Lawyers for Guantanamo prisoners state that Bogdan’s punitive policies hearken back to the dark days of Gitmo, when those at the camp were routinely tortured.

“The hunger strike has escalated to a broader crisis that is, at this point, all but irreversible,” said Wells Dixon, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents five detainees. “The men are not starving themselves so they can become martyrs...They’re doing this because they’re desperate. They’re desperate to be free from Guantanamo. They don’t see any alternative to leaving in a coffin. That’s the bottom line.”

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