by Cora Currier, ProPublica
It’s been 11 years since the first detainees were brought to Guantánamo Bay. But the future of the prison, and the fate of the men inside it, is far from certain. With 59 detainees at Gitmo currently on hunger strike, by the military’s count, here’s a primer on what’s going at the island prison.
What started the hunger strike?
It began after guards allegedly mishandled detainees’ Korans in a cell search in early February — but it’s certainly become about more than the holy books.
The military says detainees have previously hidden “improvised weapons, unauthorized food and medicine” in the spines of the Korans, and that the February searches were standard, conducted by Muslim translators. (Koran searches had set off hunger strikes before, in 2005.)
Attorneys for the hunger strikers say the detainees have offered to relinquish their Korans rather than have them searched. The military initially would not accept that option, but now says, “if they choose not to have one, they choose not to have one.”
In any case, just about everyone — from the International Committee of the Red Cross to the general in charge of U.S. Southern Command — agrees the strike comes out of growing frustration and hopelessness among detainees. As we detail below, there are few indications that Gitmo will be shuttered or detainees transferred in the near future. The last detainee to leave Gitmo, last fall, was dead.
General Kelly, of U.S. Southern Command, said last month that detainees had watched President Obama’s State of the Union address, and heard no mention of Guantánamo. “That has caused them to become frustrated and they want to … turn the heat up, get it back in the media,” Kelly said.
In an account published in The New York Times last weekend, a Yemeni hunger striker named Samir Moqbel said he hoped “that because of the pain we are suffering, the eyes of the world will once again look to Guantánamo before it is too late.” (Moqbel had recounted his story by phone to his lawyers.)
Another detainee, a Saudi Arabian named Shaker Aamer, also recently wrote an op-ed. Calling himself “a bit of a professional hunger striker,” Aamer said “this one is a whole lot different.” Lawyers say the strike is far more widespread than the military’s count.
According to the military, two detainees have attempted suicide since the strike began.
Have there been clashes between guards and the prisoners?
Yes, most recently last weekend. In an early-morning raid on Saturday, soldiers in riot gear moved about 60 of the detainees from their communal living camp into individual cells. Guards fired four “less-than-lethal” rounds; they say some prisoners wielded makeshift weapons, constructed from broken broomsticks and plastic water bottles filled with rocks.
Military commanders told the Miami Herald that the once-“compliant” detainees had been ignoring orders for months, “covering cameras, poking guards with sticks through fences, spraying U.S. forces with urine and refusing to lock themselves inside their cells for nightly sweeps.”
In January, there was an altercation on the facility’s new soccer field, which ended with guards shooting “one non-lethal round” at a group of detainees.
In a statement earlier this week, the military said the detainees were being placed on lockdown to allow for “round-the-clock monitoring.” In recent years, the communal living arrangement had been redone to “feel more like a dorm.” Now, the Miami Herald reports, those men are confined to their cells, without TV, legal documents, and the other things they were previously allowed.
An attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Omar Farah, told ProPublica that he and other lawyers feared that the move to individual cells would cut off information about the strike. “The primary way we’ve been getting information is through prisoners’ accounts of one another.”
Are the strikers being mistreated?
At least one detainee has alleged that the hunger strikers are being punished, by being forced to drink potentially unsafe tap water and cold temperatures in their cells. The military disputes that, saying the tap water is safe and bottled water is available. On Monday, a federal judge ruled he did not have jurisdiction to weigh in on the prisoners’ treatment.
What about force-feeding?
As of Wednesday, 15 detainees are being force-fed nutritional supplements through tubes inserted into their noses. The military says strikers “present” themselves for the procedure, though it also says passing out counts as consent.
Others have been tied down for feedings. Moqbel, in his account in The New York Times, said he was once tied to a bed for 26 hours last month. Now, he wrote, “Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come.”
The Red Cross and other groups oppose force-feeding; they say prisoners have a right to choose whether they eat. The U.S. military position is that it would be inhumane to let prisoners starve. A spokesman told the Miami Herald allowing a detainee to harm himself “is anathema to our values as Americans.”
How many prisoners are left at Gitmo?
There are 166. Since 2002, a total of 779 people have been held there.
No one has been brought to Gitmo under President Obama. The last people to leave were two Uighur Muslims from China, who were resettled in El Salvador last spring. Adnan Latif, a Yemeni, died in an apparent suicide in September. He was the ninth detainee to die.