Guantanamo hunger striker nearing death

Tariq Ba Odah has not been eating voluntarily since 2007.

Guantanamo prisoner
Ba Odah has been detained in Guantanamo without charge since 2002 [Justin Norman/Witness Against Torture]

Tariq Ba Odah is 1.62 metres tall, but weighs only 33.7 kilogrammes.

He does not want to die. But in peaceful protest of his detention, Ba Odah has not eaten voluntarily since 2007, maintaining one of the longest-running hunger strikes at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For the 36-year-old man, these may be his final days.


Ba Odah was picked up in Pakistan and turned over to the US, who sent him to Guantanamo, where he has been held since 2002.

Ba Odah does not know why he was initially arrested by Pakistani authorities, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and according to his lawyer, he has never been charged with a crime.

Force feeding

If his body can take it, Ba Odah is force-fed twice a day. He is strapped down and liquid is pumped through his nose into his stomach, according to his lawyer, Omar Farah.

But the force-feeding is not working.

“His body appears unable to properly absorb calories or micronutrients,” according to Farah. 

Joseph Margulies, counsel of record in the Supreme Court case Rasul v Bush, which involved detentions at Guantanamo Bay, also described Ba Odah’s deteriorating health situation, writing that medical experts believe “his body has begun to cannibalise itself to survive, slowly consuming his organs”. 

When the lawyer last visited his client, Ba Odah barely looked human, remembered Farah. Ba Odah lifted his prison smock to reveal a rail-thin body, just “skin and bones”, and almost no muscles or tissues.

Farah finds it “shocking” that the US government is not “doing everything in its power to treat him”, which, in Farah’s opinion, would involve giving him an immediate transfer from the prison.

Legal repatriation

In June, Farah, a staff attorney at the CCR, asked a federal judge to order his client’s release by reason of his progressive physical and psychological deterioration.

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Gravely ill prisoners can be legally repatriated, or sent to another country willing to receive them, argued Farah.

There is precedence for such a transfer.

Sudanese detainee, Ibrahim Othman Ibrahim Idris, whose lawyers argued had suffered from mental and physical illness, was ordered to be released by a judge in December 2013 and transferred to Sudan. 

In Ba Odah’s case, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has asked – for the third time – to extend its response to Ba Odah’s request until August 14, 2015. The reason for requesting the extension, the DoJ said, is that it needed to “further consider internally its response to petitioner’s motion”.

Ba Odah, who is a citizen of Yemen and a resident of Saudi Arabia, was unanimously cleared for transfer more than five years ago by six federal agencies with a stake in national security.

Al Jazeera understands that the US Department of State would like to see Ba Odah released.

However, The New York Times has reported the US Department of Defense (DoD) is concerned that releasing Ba Odah “would create an incentive for other detainees to stop eating”.

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The DoD would not comment to Al Jazeera on the case.

Possibility of death

Farah has pointed out that there is possibly a separate medical condition that is affecting Ba Odah and could be part of the reason for his poor state of health, his weight, and the reason behind his body’s inability to absorb nutrients.

“No other conclusion is viable, unless one presumes the government intends to maintain him at just 56 percent of his ideal body weight while he is on hunger strike,” stated Farah

Yet, the fact that he remains in Guantanamo and has no access to proper medical care and expertise to diagnose his condition puts his life in danger. 

He is kept in solitary confinement because his behaviour is viewed as “noncompliant”. In solitary confinement, he has almost no human contact, and although he is allowed to go outside for a few hours a day, he is usually too weak to take advantage of the opportunity.

His state of health is so precarious that he is vulnerable to the slightest dangers in the environment around him. A cold, a fever, a small injury – like one sustained from a fall – could overwhelm his system, leading to possible death, according to Farah.

Yet Ba Odah is defiant.

“Protesting by hunger striking is the only way to communicate [to those with freedom] what it means to be unjustly detained, to be put in a cell for over a decade without charge,” Ba Odah has explained of his situation, according to CCR.

Regardless of whether Ba Odah’s release could inspire other prisoners to starve themselves in hopes of getting out of Guantanamo, the DoD’s position is “breathtaking in its moral bankruptcy”, wrote Margulies.

“Anyone who supposes the Obama administration – at least in the particulars of its counterterror policy – is morally superior to the Bush administration should reflect on [the] DoD’s position.” 

Source: Al Jazeera