This Prisoner's 8 Year Crusade for Release Is the Epitome of Obama's Mishandling of Guantánamo Prison

The following is an excerpt from the new book Obama's Guantanamo: Stories from an Enduring Prison edited by Jonathan Hafetz, this piece is by contibutor Omar Farah (NYU Press, 2016): 


Tariq Ba Odah would be a slight man, even if he were willing to eat. His shoulders are barely wide enough to keep his orange prison uniform in place. His wrists are childlike and his hands delicate, veins visible all the way to the ends of his fingers. When his arm is straightened, he can almost touch the tip of his pinky to his thumb around his own bicep. The combination of his raised cheekbones and beard cast a shadow down the side of his face. His eyes and nose are naturally large, though they take on particular prominence now that his weight has fallen under 80 pounds. Tariq’s curly black hair, which he keeps shoulder-length, does little to fill out his profile. The office chairs in the cells in Camp Echo, where Guantánamo prisoners and attorneys typically meet, appear to swallow Tariq up. Sores plague him. The pain in his stomach and back cause him to shift in place moment to moment. All of this gives Tariq the appearance of, as a fellow prisoner put it, a bird about to take flight. But Tariq has been caged at Guantánamo for nearly 13 years, despite being cleared for release by the nation’s top national security agencies. He is 36 years old.

At the Guantánamo prison camps, Tariq is what is known as a “long-term” hunger striker. That euphemism becomes more absurd with each passing year. Tariq has not eaten—not voluntarily at least—since February 2007. As a result, he is force-fed, usually in the morning and again in the evening. Guards remove Tariq from his cell, often six at a time in full riot gear, strap him to a restraint chair, and medical staff force a liquid supplement through his nose and into his stomach. “Waterboarding,” Tariq calls it, both for the obvious torture analogy and because, at times, it has caused him to urinate and vomit.

I traveled to Guantánamo to see Tariq in March 2015. I met with him again the following month. Tariq had recently passed the eighth anniversary of his hunger strike, but he was not in the mood to reflect: “I don’t feel the days anymore.” Tariq doesn’t feel much of anything anymore. “My body gets so numb; no sensation,” he said, rapping his knuckles on the arm of his chair to illustrate the point. Apparently, this is a symptom of starvation. And with military doctors saying Tariq is only 56% of his ideal body weight, there is no doubt he is starving. When Tariq lifted his prison smock, I had to look down. All I managed to write in my legal pad was “does not look like body of human; every bone visible.” Imagine liberation photos of Holocaust survivors and you will have a sense of what I saw. Tariq sat back in his chair and said, “My life is not like it was. This is the hardest I have ever had it.”

These last visits with Tariq were the most recent in a series of meetings that began five years ago. By the time Tariq and I first met face to face in 2010, I had already been his lawyer for two years. Agreeing to introduce himself to me in person was a decision Tariq weighed carefully. Guantánamo has taught him to be leery of leaving his cell. Over the years, he has endured more humiliating interrogations than he can remember; when the prison administration rotates him to a new cellblock, typically it is to make his confinement more isolative. Even visits to the prison clinic are coercive; Tariq complains of an array of physical ailments, from a collapsing nostril to bloody stools, but says simple medical assistance is withheld to compel him to abandon his strike. Worse still, in recent years, the prison administration implemented pretextual searches of the prisoners’ genital areas whenever they enter or leave the cellblock. So it was understandable that Tariq consistently declined my meeting requests. Indeed, much of our initial contact was through “refusal” notes—handwritten messages attorneys send to persuade Guantánamo prisoners to attend a scheduled legal meeting.

Sending notes to Tariq became something of a ritual. Once in the screening facility at Camp Echo, I came to expect the guard on duty to tell me that my “detainee has refused.” It happened each time I attempted to meet Tariq. Although I assumed it was futile, I would send a note anyway. Rarely were they more than a few lines, containing only a greeting and enough information to clearly identify myself. That precaution is essential at Guantánamo. Among the more common complaints I hear there is that guards withhold (or do not know themselves) the reason for moving a prisoner. That a “meeting” has been scheduled offers little comfort; historically, meetings were just as likely to be an interrogation as a visit from an attorney or family telephone call. More than one client has told me not to take a refusal personally: “I wasn’t sure it was really you,” they tell me.

Whatever the practical obstacles, it must still seem odd to those unfamiliar with Guantánamo that someone enduring what amounts to an indefinite sentence without ever being charged or tried would refuse the assistance of counsel. But Tariq has seen well-meaning lawyers come and go at Guantánamo for a decade, while little has changed for him. As he observes, only the cells change, becoming rustier and more decrepit by the year—a visual reminder of the time that has elapsed.

There is no shortage of blame to go around for Guantánamo’s continued operation. In Tariq’s view, the courts, lawmakers, and the president are all part of the same system that keeps him locked up and far from his family. I am hard-pressed to disagree. But, surely, as the person with ultimate power over Tariq’s fate, President Obama bears unique responsibility for the fact that, as of this writing, Tariq remains in isolation at Guantánamo, having passed the eighth anniversary of his hunger strike, bracing himself for his next feeding session.

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