Much has been written about the ongoing hunger strike undertaken four months ago today at the infamous US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, more than 11 years after its establishment. Today, more than 100 of the 166 prisoners refuse to eat.
But relatively scant attention has been paid to the real message behind the hunger strike.
The hunger strike began on February 6, 2013, in Guantanamo’s Camp VI. The significance of that location should not be overlooked. Camp VI is the US military’s showcase facility at Guantanamo. Journalists and other visitors are taken on tours there. They are informed that it is a model, modern facility and that the prisoners are content and compliant as long as they are plied with ice cream and video games.
In many ways, Camp VI was the US’ Potemkin Village, meant to mask Guantanamo’s defining and ugly truth: that it is a dungeon where men languish without fair process, hostages to US partisan politics.
That the prisoners in Camp VI, of all places, are the ones who launched the hunger strike not only signalled a rejection of the attempts to whitewash Guantanamo, but it also reminded the world that no amount of window-dressing and prison “privileges” can suppress the human desire for dignity, freedom, and justice.
All of the men at Guantanamo that my students, my colleagues, and I represent are participating in the hunger strike. That includes Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni, who was recently shot five times at dangerously close range by a US prison guard using rubber-coated steel bullets. Instead of treating him immediately, the guards handcuffed Moath. Military authorities then placed him in solitary confinement and, more recently, began the brutal process of force-feeding him on a restraint chair by shoving a tube down his nostril and into his stomach.
Inside Story Americas – The failing state of Guantanamo Bay
This was all done in order to break Moath’s hunger strike. In frighteningly Orwellian terms, however, the US government described his potentially lethal wounds as “minor injuries” and it justified both his placement in solitary confinement as well as the force-feeding as measures intended “to ensure the health and security of the detainees”.
Another client informed me in a recent letter that a woman in uniform who was forcing the feeding tube down his nose threatened to force it up his rectum in order to feed him unless he ended his hunger strike. He also described how Guantanamo personnel have told him and other prisoners that they will remain restrained to a chair after force-feeding and will have to urinate through catheters inserted into their private parts against their will.
Why someone would persist in protest despite such extreme repression might defy the comprehension of those of us who are fortunate enough to live outside that prison. Some, like the head of US Southern Command, General John Kelly, have speculated that the hunger strike is borne of despair. As far as Moath and my other clients are concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. Their hunger strike is a life-affirming gesture. It is the prisoners’ way of exercising their autonomy and asserting their dignity. In Moath’s words: “I have not lost hope. My protest is not driven by despair. But I will maintain my protest until I regain my freedom.”
The prisoners’ unyielding demand for justice has captured the world’s attention. Everyone from the head human rights officers at the United Nations, to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, to the editorial boards of leading American newspapers has echoed the prisoners’ call. Americans are coordinating rolling solidarity fasts nationwide. Even senior US senators like Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin have written President Barack Obama, asking that he resume concrete efforts to shutter Guantanamo.
While Obama’s recent announcement – lifting the self-imposed moratorium on prisoner transfers from Guantanamo to Yemen or Saudi Arabia – marked a necessary step in the right direction, it is by no means sufficient. The prisoners have acted and their intentions are clear. As my client Abdulahdi Faraj recently wrote: “Despite the difficulties, the harsh conditions, and the challenges placed in their path by the US government, the hunger strikers will pursue their protest.”
Obama, too, must now act by exercising the authority he already possesses to release prisoners.
Ramzi Kassem is an associate professor of law at the City University of New York, where he directs the Immigrant & Refugee Rights Clinic.