4 Inhumane Realities about the Guantanamo Hunger Strike

Friday marks 100 days since the beginning of the hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay that has recaptured international attention on the offshore prison President Obama promised to close when seeking office five years ago.

As of Thursday, military officials say that 102 out of 166 detainees are participating in the strike. Lawyers say that number is closer to 130. 

Since the hunger strike began 100 days ago, international groups including the European Parliament, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and several nations with detainees at GITMO have stepped up pressure on the Obama administration to release detainees or close the prison altogether.

As the strike continues past its 100th day, here are four of the most disturbing facts about the situation at Guantanamo. 

1. The torturous force-feeding

Thirty of the 166 prisoners held at Guantanamo are being subjected to force-feeding--a practice that’s considered torture and in violation of international law by the UN human rights office. Earlier this week, the ACLU, as well as a handful of human rights organizations, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urging a halt to force-feeding at GITMO. 

While the military says it’d be “inhumane” to let the prisoners starve themselves, several human rights and medical groups disagree. 

“Under those circumstances, to go ahead and force-feed a person is not only an ethical violation but may rise to the level of torture or ill-treatment,” said Peter Maurer, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The military’s force-feeding procedure involves shoving a tube into a prisoner’s nose, through the sinuses, throat, and eventually, stomach. The process inflicts severe pain and discomfort. According to an analysis of military documents by Al Jazeera, prisoners are forced to “to wear masks over their mouths while they sit shackled in a restraint chair for as long as two hours” while a liquid nutritional supplement is pumped into their stomach. “At the end of the feeding, the prisoner is removed from the restraint chair and placed into a ‘dry cell’ with no running water,” Al Jazeera explains. “A guard then observes the detainee for 45-60 minutes ‘for any indications of vomiting or attempts to induce vomiting.’ If the prisoner vomits he is returned to the restraint chair.”

2. Alleged attempts to “break” hunger strikers 

Several reports have emerged that Guantanamo guards are mistreating hunger strikers in an effort to “break” them. Lawyers for Yemini prisoner Musaab al-Madhwani says guards are targeting strikers by denying them drinking water, forcing them to drink non-potable tap water, and keeping their cells at “extremely frigid” temperatures, reports AFP. In a complaint, lawyers said, “When Musaab and his fellow prisoners requested drinking water, the guards told them to drink from the faucets … The lack of potable water has already caused some prisoners kidney, urinary and stomach problems.”

Another lawyer tells RT that guards are removing striking detainees from communal living spaces and forcing them to live in single cells to break their spirit.

3. More than half of GITMO’s prisoners have been cleared for release. Ninety percent haven’t even been charged with a crime.

Eighty-six of 166 prisoners at GITMO have already been cleared for release, yet legal and bureaucratic barriers have kept them detained indefinitely. First of all, Congress imposed restrictions on detainee transfers, requiring proof that potential transfers would never pose a threat to U.S. national security in the future. In a press conference last month, President Obama reiterated this fact, saying that he’s “going to need some help from Congress.” Yet, as several commentators have pointed out, Congress also granted Obama the power to use waivers to transfer detainees, a power he has not exercised once.

Complicating things is the 56 Yemeni nationals detained at Guantanamo. As AlterNet's Alex Kane explained, Yemen is “a strong U.S. ally that also has a problem with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that has plotted attacks against the U.S. After a 2009 terrorist plot that purportedly originated in Yemen was halted, the Obama administration decided to halt repatriation of detainees to Yemen.”

4. No alternative to leaving -- except in a coffin

The hunger strike reportedly began as a response to prison guards mishandling personal property and detainees’ Qu’rans. But as several commentators, organizations and detainees themselves have pointed out, that was just a tipping point. The strike represents prisoners’ boiling frustrations for being kept from their families in inhumane conditions, some being held for more than 11 years.   

 "Officials say two detainees have attempted suicide since the strike began."

“The men are not starving themselves so they can become martyrs...They’re doing this because they’re desperate,” said Wells Dixon an attorney representing five GITMO detainees. “They’re desperate to be free from Guantanamo. They don’t see any alternative to leaving in a coffin. That’s the bottom line.”

Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, through a phone call with his lawyer, explained that the hunger strike is driven by a last-resort mentality in an op-ed for the New York Times last month:

The situation is desperate now. All of the detainees here are suffering deeply … I have vomited blood.

And there is no end in sight to our imprisonment. Denying ourselves food and risking death every day is the choice we have made.

I just hope that because of the pain we are suffering, the eyes of the world will once again look to Guantánamo before it is too late.

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