Death Threats, a Fired Bullet and Cold Cells: Hear Guantanamo Horror Stories as Mass Hunger Strike Continues
Detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Photo Credit: Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons
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Abdulsalam Al-Hela does not understand why he and other Guantanamo prisoners reside in a perpetual state of legal limbo.
"Can it really be true that US, with all its power, all over the world, can't solve the problems of 100 men?" he asked his attorney, David Remes, during a meeting in early March.
"Yes," Remes told the Yemeni prisoner. "It's true."
No one knows what to do with these living artifacts of a post-9/11 world.
Some are waiting to stand trial for war crimes. Others - more than half - have been cleared by the US government to be returned to their homelands or other countries. All watch the days, weeks, months and years slip by without resolution, regardless of status.
Al-Hela, who has been detained without charge or trial for nearly a decade, and has been stamped and unstamped with the label of al-Qaeda operative over the years, has not eaten since February 6.
He is gaunt and weak like dozens of other Guantanamo detainees who are participating in a protracted hunger strike that is approaching three months. Al-Hela, who walks with the aid of an aluminum cane, has lost more than 30 pounds in the past 10 weeks.
This is not the first time prisoners have refused sustenance to protest conditions at Gitmo, but it is the longest and most pervasive, according to human rights lawyers like Remes, who have sounded the alarm as their clients visibly deteriorated - mentally and physically - with each visit.
Remes and other defense attorneys have given Truthout access to unclassified notes they've taken while meeting with their Gitmo clients.
Hunger strikes historically have represented the only means of control the men are able to exercise over their daily lives. And there is something about this one that signals a new level of desperation and resolve.
Some have vowed to strike "to the death." Countless others have tried to hasten the process with suicide attempts.
What Hunger Strike?
In early March, when journalists began to ask questions about a reported hunger strike involving about 130 of 166 prisoners at Guantanamo, US Defense Department officials disputed the assertions.
"There is not a mass hunger strike amongst the detainees at GTMO," Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, told Truthout March 4.
"Some detainees have attempted to coordinate a hunger strike and have refused meal deliveries, but the overwhelming majority of detainees are not participating," he said, placing the number of strikers at a half a dozen, "which is about what we have averaged for the past year."
A "very limited few detainees" have engaged in sporadic hunger strikes for several years, he added. And the Gitmo prisoners "peacefully protest" from time to time about "a host of issues ranging from availability of particular brands of breakfast cereal to enforcement of long-established camp rules."
But too many gaunt prisoners were telling their lawyers a different story, and the unclassified notes of client meetings and phone calls, along with information Truthout elicited in interviews conducted with officials at Guantanamo and the US Defense Department, point to new developments and old frustrations that precipitated the current crisis.
Changing of the Guard
Last summer, a new guard force arrived at Guantanamo. The Navy personnel who has previously patrolled the cellblocks were replaced by soldiers returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Prisoners complained to their lawyers bitterly and often about being "tormented" and "provoked" by the guards. Attorney Carlos Warner, who represents Kuwaiti detainee Fayiz al-Kandari, noted on March 20 that his client complained not only of guards "provoking" the prisoners, but threatening to kill them - a claim that Pentagon and Guantanamo officials have vehemently denied in all cases.