Doha, Qatar – Since the start of the year, more than 100 of the 166 prisoners still held at the US Guantanamo Bay detention centre have gone on hunger strike. None have yet died, but 29 are being force-fed.
Although US President Barack Obama has, since 2007, promised he would close Guantanamo, it has remained open. He blames Congress for the stalemate.
Last month, Obama again called for the prison’s closure, saying it affected the United States’ international standing and is “a recruiting tool for extremists”.
US allies Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have built rehabilitation facilities for Guantanamo detainees, while other countries in the Middle East – such as Qatar – have expressed interest in establishing such facilities.
Lieutenant Colonel Sean Gleason, deputy chief defence counsel at the US Department of Defense, represents two Guantanamo prisoners, including Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed al-Sawah, an Egyptian national who was charged in 2008 for terrorism and conspiracy. The charges against him were later dropped, but he has not been released from the infamous prison.
Navy Commander Walter B Ruiz Jr, also at the Department of Defense, represents Saudi national Mustafa al-Hawsawi, charged with being an al-Qaeda financier for the 9/11 attacks on the US.
Al Jazeera’s Rahul Radhakrishnan and Sam Bollier spoke to the two lawyers about the Guantanamo hunger strike, the military justice system and Americans’ attitudes towards the controversial detention camp.
Al Jazeera: What has prompted this mass hunger strike, and why have so many prisoners decided to take part?
Walter Ruiz: In large part, what’s prompted the hunger strike is the despair that a lot of these men feel at being in a place where they see no way out – despite the fact that the United States government has cleared 89 of them for release.
Sean Gleason: I think that out of all the 166 detainees, only two have been convicted. The rest have never been tried or convicted of a crime. Many of them have been there for over 11 years.
WR: The second part, I think, is because of the conditions of confinement. [The hunger strike] is a way of peacefully protesting what they see as substandard conditions, and conditions that are not in compliance with the international standards… I think this is the only vehicle that they can find to protest that.
A good example of this is [that] the International Committee of the Red Cross was down there looking into the hunger strike for a week or two weeks… The day after they left the island is when this large raid happened. One of the camps was raided by the guard force wearing riot gear, firing rubber bullets and wielding their billy clubs.
SG: I think their official justification [for the raid] was that prisoners were covering up the cameras, and they were concerned about the health of all of them [because of the hunger strike]. They had been living communally for years and never having a problem… Now they’re back in individual cells, on lockdown.
WR: Every time that they do a forcible cell extraction, they videotape that as part of their standard operating procedure… In this particular raid, they didn’t do any kind of recording – there was no audiotape, no videotape.
There’s another significant event, I think, which is the person who was in charge of helping… to repatriate these men left his position last year… When he left, the position wasn’t renewed, the administration didn’t continue to have that. So it was a pretty clear signal to a lot of people that the administration wasn’t serious about continuing to proactively work to send some of these men back or find places for these men to go back to.
SG: You had a change in the guard, which of course, was more restriction on the prisoners, and I think it just snowballed from there.
While the president went on and made some comments just very recently about closing Guantanamo, the other actions don't necessarily communicate the same thing.
WR: They changed the guard force very recently, and they brought in Army military police, and then they… [used] extremely excessive force in the way they’ve gone about trying to do things. In the past, while things may not have been ideal by any means of the imagination, there was a balance that was struck between the jailer and the jailed.
So you’ve got people [on hunger strike] who are already debilitated in their physical state, very much debilitated in their mental state… and are now getting raided by people in riot gear firing rubber bullets.
SG: They essentially just came and changed the rules and procedures and for men that have been imprisoned there for 11 years – it’s quite a big change when someone comes in and says: “No, the procedures you’ve been living with for 11 years are now going to completely change – we’re going to do things differently.”
WR: The second thing that we’ve seen is very recently… the commander in charge of the facilities at Guantanamo went before Congress and asked for a whole lot of money.
SG: [He asked for] close to $200m to build new facilities. So that again sent a clear message to prisoners that they’re not shutting this thing down any time soon.
WR: While the president went on and made some comments just very recently about closing Guantanamo, the other actions don’t necessarily communicate the same thing.
AJ: So the budget cuts and the sequester haven’t hit Guantanamo at all?
WR: I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. You know, Guantanamo… is not just a prison. The prison is one segment of the base, kind of in the back. Guantanamo has existed there for a long time – since we got the lease from Cuba… Over the years it’s really gotten a facelift. And the facelifts have been the recipients of a lot of added money, and you’ve seen a lot of the facilities in Guantanamo get upgraded. We’ve seen the base itself being refurbished. So for Guantanamo, it’s really been a boon.
AJ: The prisoners in Guantanamo are military detainees, and the US constitution says the president is commander-in-chief of the US military. If countries willing to take these people in were found, why can’t President Obama make good on his promise to close Guantanamo?
WR: He could do that. He could very well do that. But we always talk about closing Guantanamo. It’s not Guantanamo that’s the issue: it’s the commission within Guantanamo.
It’s the military commissions that need to be shut down and go away, because that’s what drives the people who are imprisoned in Guantanamo.
There’s no system anymore. It’s basically become – the New York Times recently published an op-ed where they called it now “a political prison”. And that’s really what it is at this point: a political prison with no judicial process. Or the judicial process that does exist, it exists for a very, very minute percentage of the population there.
Up until the defence found these listening devices, the government had always assured the defence that there were no such listening devices in the room.
AJ: Has defending Guantanamo prisoners changed your view of the US military justice system?
WR: The military commission [set up to try Guantanamo inmates] is not equal to the military justice system… This is a very different animal.
What they’ve done here, in my view, is they’ve really bastardised the military justice system… For me there’s resentment in that, in the fact that the military commissions in many ways have really been a black eye – not just for the United States, but also for the traditional military justice system and for military lawyers, who I’ve always found to be top-notch professionals.
AJ: You’re both Department of Defense lawyers and you also represent prisoners at Guantanamo. Is that a conflict of interest?
SG: You would think so… There’s not. Just as any other defence client, we have a duty and loyalty to our client, and that comes over any duty and loyalty we have to the government. And it’s actually written into the rules that we’re assigned to represent our client, not the United States.
WR: Where I see more of the conflict coming is with the fact that we have created a system under the Department of Defense umbrella that essentially covers the entire system. We have to go for our money to Department of Defense officials. The manner in which they administer the system and the manner in which they withhold money or withhold resources, in my view, is driven by the fact that there is – at the administrative level – very much a conflict of interest. You have political appointees, you have people who are career-service-oriented, who have very much been put there by the administration.
AJ: Have communications between you and your clients been kept private? Have guards at Guantanamo respected attorney-client privilege?
WR: No. I was assigned in 2009 to Mr Hawsawi… We’ve formed a pretty solid relationship based on trust and mutual respect. But we’ve had a great deal of difficulty because of the violations of attorney-client privilege. We’ve seen that in unauthorised searches of legal mail materials… What we’ve seen is the guard force has gone in there, withdrawn material at times, torn pages out of notebooks that include legal notes and legal materials.
There’s been no accountability as to why they did that. If you ask them why they did that they can’t tell you, or they won’t tell you… We recently had this whole issue of finding equipment that was used for monitoring – the smoke detectors were actually listening devices in the attorney-client meeting rooms.
SG: Up until the defence found these listening devices, the government had always assured the defence that there were no such listening devices in the room.
AJ: What do you think would be the fallout if someone were to die during the hunger strike?
WR: I think it would be huge. Already Guantanamo is kind of this new Devil’s Island, which just managed to sit there and fester and rot… So I think somebody dying would simply be just the exclamation point on what’s already a pretty bad situation.
I don’t think anybody wins when it comes to Guantanamo.
AJ: How would you say Americans’ public attitude towards Guantanamo has changed over the past 10 years?
WR: In the very beginning, when 9/11 was very fresh in everyone’s psyche, I think people were very much willing to accept just about anything… So I think the attitude toward Guantanamo was that it was needed, that it was acceptable and that it was very much something that I think a vast majority of the population may have supported.
Over the years… people have really not thought about Guantanamo that much – kind of “out of sight, out of mind”. Now it’s re-emerged again because of the trials, because of the human rights issues.