Hunger strike reinvigorates movement to close Guantánamo

Protest outside the military recruiting center in Times Square. (Witness Against Torture)

Protest outside the military recruiting center in Times Square. (Witness Against Torture)

In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, it is quite shocking that the renewed vigor to close Guantánamo has found the footing that it has. Even though many of the terrible myths started by the Bush administration’s War on Terror rhetoric linger, especially regarding the so-called “worst of the worst” at Guantánamo, Boston Globe columnist James Carroll recently added his name to the growing list of citizens and institutions calling for an end to America’s most infamous gulag. Carroll wrote that “if Americans want this spectacle to end — if they want to tell Congress and President Obama that Guantánamo must be shut down — now is the time for them to make their voices heard. But how?”

The situation is stark and quickly deteriorating with more than 130 of the prison’s 166 detainees on hunger strike in protest of their treatment. The hunger strike, according to Leili Kashani from the Center for Constitutional Rights, is a very grave situation; men are experiencing irreversible harm and approaching death.

“The hunger strike has arisen from a great and deep despair,” said Kashani when I spoke to her by phone. “It cannot be divorced from the fact that most of the men there have been detained 11 years without charge or trial. And that weighs heavily on me and my colleagues.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights has coordinated much of the legal efforts guaranteeing the option of representation for the detainees, as well as resettlement for the men who remain at Guantánamo because they cannot return to their country of origin for fear of persecution and torture.

The global movement to close Guantánamo and end indefinite detention has consistently pressed for the truth about many of the men still imprisoned there: more than half of the 166 remaining men have been cleared for release by the Obama-initiated Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2010; many of them had been cleared for release by the Bush administration. The prison has detained 779 men in the course of its history and most of them never should have been there to begin with. To date, none have received a fair trial under the standards of international law, nine have died, and only a handful have even been convicted in the spurious military commission courts.

In January, after Guantánamo’s 11th anniversary protests in Washington, D.C., hopes of Guantánamo remaining a pertinent issue seemed dimmed. Activists with Witness Against Torture continued to organize and strategize around what it would take to close the prison but, by and large, the efforts seemed futile. Over St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Chicago — as Frida Berrigan related — Witness Against Torture organized a strategy retreat to think through more clearly all of the structural issues that keep the prison open.

Then news of the hunger strike came. Through lawyers — and later journalists — Witness Against Torture learned that, since February 6, a growing number of men had been refusing to eat to protest a few incidents at the camp.

“What the men are doing is an act of protest,” said Kashani. “It is peaceful protest against their situation of injustice that they’ve been a part of and have managed to bring attention back to their plight — that has not happened in a long time.”

Inspired by the hunger strikers, Witness Against Torture mobilized a week-long solidarity fast as well as public actions, targeted media inquiries, and a public awareness campaign to put pressure on the White House and the U.S. military regarding the conditions at Guantánamo. Since its inception in 2005 — when 25 activists traveled to Cuba to try to visit the prison in response to more than 200 prisoners who were then on hunger strike — Witness Against Torture has consistently organized campaigns, actions and fasts to close Guantánamo, stop torture and end indefinite detention. In the past eight years, there have been as many as two dozen civil disobedience actions organized around the country that have resulted in over 500 arrests.

“Witness Against Torture came together to respond to the cries of the prisoners,” said organizer Matt Daloisio, “then, as now, the answer of how to close Guantánamo comes from those imprisoned themselves.” That is what the Witness Against Torture community does — it tries to listen to those sacrificing and work on their behalf. “Our responsibility to those imprisoned is how to most humanely and effectively share their sacrifice and their stories so that the prison at Guantánamo closes with justice,” said Daloisio.

And through lawyers like Kashani and her colleagues, their clients at Guantánamo know that there are people out there raising awareness about the hunger strike and helping to share their stories. “Witness Against Torture has been absolutely critical and very meaningful to men detained in GTMO,” said Kashani. By holding photographs, speaking prisoners’ words, and protesting the ongoing injustice over the years, “it has been a glimmer of hope even in this desperate time,” she added. “I think it still means something for the well-being of our clients and the possibility of creating a just society.”

During the current hunger strike, public protests have taken place across the United States, including one in New York City where 12 people from Witness Against Torture were arrested in a die-in on the steps of the Federal Courthouse. Other vigils and actions have happened in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and dozens of other cities across the country.

Amnesty International’s Zeke Johnson affirms the steadfastness of those committed to closing the prison. “It’s inspiring to see people from all walks of life, all political parties, coming together in the streets and online calling for human rights and closing Guantánamo,” said Johnson.

Debra Sweet, director of World Can’t Wait, in an email to Waging Nonviolence, highlighted “the desperation of the Guantánamo prisoners” that drove them to hunger strike and, in turn, put “the continuing illegitimate indefinite detention of the men back into the news, and… the Obama administration on the defensive.” World Can’t Wait is in the process of launching an ad campaign targeting Obama.

“The visible, but small, protests by Witness Against Torture, World Can’t Wait and Amnesty International have helped, as have the stories of the men, which are finally getting out, even into conventional media,” wrote Sweet.

On April 14, for example, The New York Times published an emotional op-ed, “Gitmo is Killing Me,” by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, who has been imprisoned at Guantánamo since 2002. In that letter, which Moqbel communicated through an Arabic interpreter to his lawyers, he graphically describes the process and feeling of being force-fed.

Human rights groups and international medical organizations have publicly labeled force-feeding as torture and denounced the cruel practice. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross — an organization known to favor closed door meetings rather than public pressure — criticized the Obama administration’s decision to force-feed as a way to break the strike. The release on May 13 of a classified U.S. military manual that details the standard operating procedure for dealing with the force-feeding reveals the institutional brutality that the government systematically employs against the hunger strike.

On April 30, after almost three months of the hunger strike, President Obama publicly weighed in on the issue he promised to resolve on his first day of office in 2009. He renewed his commitment to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. In his remarks, Obama said that he does not want anyone to die and that “the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried is contrary to who we are, contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”

That same day, former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo Col. Morris Davis’ Change.org petition urging President Obama to follow through on his promise to shut down Guantánamo went live and in less than 24 hours, according to the New York Daily News, there were more than 75,000 signatures. Within a week, the petition had topped 175,000 signatures. Organizers will keep the petition open through day 100 of the hunger strike, May 17.

On Friday, May 10, experts on the situation at Guantanamo briefed Congress about current conditions at the prison and discussed immediate steps the President can take to start the process of closing the prison. Organized by human rights groups and hosted by Rep. Jim Moran, it was well attended and featured prominent military and human rights experts. Meanwhile, across town, Code Pink co-founder Diane Wilson chained herself to the White House fence protesting Guantanamo. She was on day 10 of a water-only solidarity fast with the hunger strikers.

Current and former prisoners, activists, lawyers, journalists and guards have all played significant roles in getting Guantánamo back into the mainstream consciousness and, hopefully, back on the political agenda. Almost every single major American newspaper has, in recent weeks, published editorials calling for the prison to close. Perhaps more importantly, the mainstream media has been refreshingly accurate in placing the blame mostly on President Obama for failing to shutter Guantánamo’s doors.

What’s happening is unprecedented and it may have reached a tipping point, at least according to British investigative journalist Andy Worthington, whose work on Guantánamo dates back to 2005. “I’ve never seen such concerted interest from the global media, and from the main U.S. newspapers,” said Worthington. “I certainly hope that there’s no way that President Obama will be allowed to shirk his responsibilities any more, and that Congress will also be made to feel the weight of public criticism of their cynical political maneuvering.”

The obstacles to closing the prison, as Human Rights Watch counter-terrorism advisor Laura Pitter recently opined, have mostly been that of Obama’s finger-pointing at Congress. Others agree, including University of Chicago Law School professor Eric Posner. “President Obama can lawfully release the detainees if he wants to,” wrote Posner in Slate. “Congress has made it difficult, but not impossible. Whatever he’s saying, the president does not want to close the detention center — at least not yet.”

So what are the options to resolve the crisis at Guantánamo? According to Zeke Johnson, blogging for Amnesty International, “Obama… is not without options for doing the right thing, right now. For example, dozens of detainees have been cleared to leave and can be transferred under current U.S. law.” The president, he added, should “charge and fairly try them [the remaining prisoners] in federal court, or release them.”

As Director of Amnesty International USA’s Security with Human Rights Campaign, Johnson has played a key role in the coalition efforts that have organized protests — including the actions on January 11, 2012, which were the largest mobilizations against the prison and indefinite detention to date. What the government needs to do to ease the crisis at Guantánamo is to begin transfers and start releasing some of the men cleared for release. Under the National Defense Authorization Act, Obama has the power to do that without Congress’ approval. “It is the critical thing,” said Kashani on resuming transfers out of Guantánamo. “Otherwise the situation looks very grim.”

Human rights activists from the United States and the U.K. have called for days of global action for May 17-19. Aisha Maniar with the London Guantánamo Campaign — a key ally to prisoner advocacy groups such as Cageprisoners and Save Shaker Aamer — told Waging Nonviolence that “the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of grassroots civil society to make the difference [to close Guantánamo].”

Hoping to add to the pressure to persuade Obama to spend political capital on releasing prisoners and actually work toward closing Guantánamo, other groups have promised to join in the days of action. In a new communique, Anonymous — utilizing the #OpGTMO hashtag — has vowed to participate in the weekend-long protests and Code Pink is organizing its supporters — including Deepak Chopra, Julian Assange and Eve Ensler — for a solidarity fast.

“It has taken the world months of excruciating pain, suffering and hunger for the prisoners to wake up to their existence and their plight,” said Maniar about the flurry of media and international attention drawn by the hunger strike. “One can only hope that it does not take a fatality to trigger that missing essential and relevant debate on how to end the hunger strike and end the indefinite detention without charge or trial of the prisoners.”

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