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

Human Rights

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.”

The U.S. government has tried to downplay the growing hunger strike and denigrated the act as a media stunt. The hunger strike was “specifically designed” to “attract media attention,” a Guantanamo prison spokesman told Truthout.

But while this is no “stunt,” the fact that the media is finally paying attention is a victory for the prisoners, though the camp still receives relatively little attention in general from the public at large.

Human rights groups are also now mobilizing as a result of the hunger strike. April 11 was a day of action against Guantanamo, with protests taking place in a handful of cities, all with a unified demand: shut down the prison camp now.

And it comes at a moment when it appears that the Obama administration has given up on shuttering the prison. While the administration likely hopes that Guantanamo as an issue goes away, the hunger strike has shown just how awful the situation has become. Detainees are bitterly disappointed in Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo. “They had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed,” General John Kelly said in congressional testimony last month. “They were devastated, apparently, when the president backed off.” Indeed, in January, the State Department office tasked with closing the prison was itself closed.

Lawyers for the Guantanamo detainees have sounded the alarm on their clients’ deteriorating condition. On March 14, a group of attorneys representing men at Guantanamo sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “We have...received alarming reports of detainees’ deteriorating health, including that men have lost over 20 and 30 pounds, and that at least two dozen men have lost consciousness due to low blood glucose levels, which have dropped to life-threatening levels among some,” they wrote. They went on to urge the Defense Secretary to “address the immediate situation at hand as well as the long-term fate of all the remaining men at Guantánamo.”

One of the most detailed accounts of the ongoing hunger strike comes from Shaker Aamer, a resident of Britain originally from Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration admitted it had no evidence to hold Aamer, who has been at Guantanamo since February 2002 after being sold in Afghanistan by bounty hunters. He gave his account of current conditions at the camp to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, a prominent British human rights lawyer, who wrote an affidavit.

The Qu’ran searches are not the only indignities the prisoners are livid about, as Aamer details. On February 15, they entered Aamer’s cell and brutalized him, as well as two others, during prayer time. One of the men beaten by what’s called the Emergency Reaction Force (ERF) was unconscious for four days. The ERF, as investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill detailed for AlterNet in 2009, is known for being particularly abusive. Shaker Aamer has been abused by guards a number of times since then, according to Smith’s affidavit.

Aamer says that the use of sleep deprivation has intensified since the hunger strike began and that a Tunisian prisoner has attempted suicide. A “new practice...has been brought in which involves using a dog leash on the detainees,” Aamer related to Smith. And Aamer has “been badly punished for joining the strike”--the military has withheld medical treatment for Aamer’s health problems.

The American response has fallen far short of what detainees are demanding. Truthout reporter Jason Leopold wrote earlier this month that “prisoners said they would immediately end their hunger strike if they were allowed to ‘surrender’ their Korans...instead of having them searched by translators. That demand was shot down because it could be interpreted that Guantanamo officials are denying prisoners their right to religious materials.” Guantanamo spokesman Robert Durand told Truthout that the prisoners “have presented no demands that we can meet.”

Instead of addressing the root causes of the hunger strike, the U.S. has taken to force-feeding the detainees to keep them alive. The Associated Press reports that lawyers are being informed when their detainees are being force-fed. While officials at the prison camp say that force-feeding is not painful, the detainees tell a different story. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has said that force-feeding at Guantanamo amounts to torture. Asked about the process, the Center for Constitutional Right’s Dixon said: “The process of death, death by starvation, is not easy. It’s not painless. In the case of men who are force-fed, it’s an even more excruciating experience. The military may keep these individuals alive by pumping food up their noses into their stomach. But eventually they’re going to die. You can only force-feed someone for so long before their body gives out.”

The ongoing hunger-strike is the latest example of how bizarre, cruel and dystopic the situation at Guantanamo has become. Eighty-six men have been cleared for release from Guantanamo by the U.S., but they still remain at the camp. Fifty-six of those cleared are from Yemen, a country and close ally of the U.S. that has expressed willingness to take them back—though human rights groups have also criticized the Yemeni government's abusive treatment of returned prisoners. One of the Yemeni prisoners was Adnan Latif, who was cleared for release by one court in a decision that was later overturned after the Obama administration appealed it. In September 2012, Latif died at Guantanamo due to what the U.S. government says was a suicide, though questions have been raised about the U.S. government explanation.

The Obama administration has halted repatriation to Yemen since the disruption of a 2009 terrorist plot originating from the country. Congress has meddled in the president’s ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo. Legislation signed by President Obama has imposed limits on releasing prisoners. But one mechanism that does exist is a national security waiver that the Secretary of Defense could sign off on the release of prisoners. There are also prisoners the Obama administration says are too dangerous to release but cannot be prosecuted because evidence related to their case comes from torture.

Lawyers for the select group of detainees who are being subjected to military prosecution have had to deal with their own problems. For one, the Guantanamo detainees are prohibited from detailing in court how they were brutally tortured. That information is considered classified by the U.S. government. Other problems include the fact that outside censors cut off a public feed to the courtroom, though a judge barred that practice early this year, and that U.S. officials have installed listening devices to eavesdrop on prisoner-attorney communications.

Attorneys for detainees emphasize that if current conditions at Guantanamo persist, the situation could become even more disastrous than it already is.

“If this crisis isn’t resolved soon, there will be more deaths. That is certain,” Dixon told AlterNet. “The administration is going to need to explain why these individuals were detained, particularly individuals who have been cleared for release for years, and allowed to die. They’ll be forced to answer the question: why in the world was this person detained to the point where he felt so utterly hopeless, that he starved himself to death in order to be free?”

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