Barack Obama had been President for only one full day when, on Jan. 22, 2009, he acted on a central campaign promise. Arguing that the Founding Fathers would agree that America must “observe the core standards of conduct not just when it’s easy but also when it’s hard,” Obama signed an executive order to close the notorious military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, where the Bush administration had detained hundreds of men captured in combat and counter terrorism operations since 2001. With dozens of men imprisoned for years without charges brought against them, and in many cases having actually been cleared for release, Obama said closing Guantánamo would return America to the “moral high ground” it had yielded in its ruthless pursuit of al-Qaeda during the Bush years. “I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away,” Obama said in May 2009. “I refuse to pass it on to somebody else. It is my responsibility to solve the problem.”
Four years later, with Guantánamo still open–and the site of widespread hunger strikes and other acts of disobedience by many of its 166 inmates–Obama is again trying to fulfill that responsibility. In a May 23 address about a range of his counter-terrorism policies, including drone strikes, Obama declared the start of a new push against the political obstacles that thwarted his first attempt to close the most infamous symbol of the US’s post-9/11 war on terrorism. “[History] will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it,” Obama said.
But Obama will be hard pressed to live up to his grand rhetoric. Opposition still runs high to the idea of releasing or bringing into US prisons dozens of men widely considered dangerous terrorists even if many are not. Asked to gauge the probability that Obama can close Guantánamo before he leaves office, David Remes, a lawyer who represents 18 Guantánamo inmates replies, “Zero.” And even if Obama can shut down the site known colloquially as Gitmo, he hasn’t promised to end the practice of long-term incarceration without trial that along with interrogation techniques like waterboarding blighted the US’s track record for treating prisoners in the so-called global war on terrorism. The prison camp on Cuba’s southern tip may or may not be shuttered during Obama’s watch, but Gitmo, in the metaphorical sense, may never really close.
Nor is America’s long war on terrorism about to end. Obama’s speech revealed a man “haunted” by the deaths of innocents in drone strikes and wrestling with the balance between national security and the constitution’s integrity. But while he announced tighter standards for ordering drone strikes abroad (including an unspoken plan to partly shift the programme from the CIA to the theoretically more accountable Pentagon) and spoke of a day when the war might be declared over, Obama is retaining broad powers to detain or kill suspected terrorists, to conduct aggressive surveillance and to use military force in foreign nations. “To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties,” Obama said. “We must finish the work of defeating al-Qaeda and its associated forces.”
Hungry for Clarity
At last count, military medical personnel at Gitmo were force-feeding 35 of the more than 100 inmates who refuse to eat. Twice a day, those men are strapped into restraining chairs as tubes that run up their noses and down their throats fill their stomachs with a compound called Ensure, a supplement used by everyone from athletes to dieters. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called force-feeding a violation of international law, and the World Medical Association, of which the US is a member, declared in 1991 that the practice is “never ethically acceptable” unless a prisoner consents or is unable to make a rational choice. (The WMA calls it “ethical to allow a determined hunger striker to die.”)
Although Remes says he suspects the inmates at Gitmo are aware of the President’s speech and that some may even have watched it on television, he doubts that the hunger strikes will end anytime soon. “Obama has no credibility with the detainees,” he says. “I bet they didn’t even look up from their chessboards.” Then, recalling that after recent scuffles with their guards, inmates were barred from congregating, he adds, “No, they’re not playing chess. They’re not even allowed to be together.”
A lack of faith in Obama is one reason for the hunger strikes (although detainees have also alleged improper treatment by guards, including charges of mishandling Quran, that the military denies). Among the hunger strikers are 86 who have been declared safe for release–some of them by two different administrations–and who were crushed when Obama failed to deliver on his 2009 promise to close Gitmo.
Should They Stay or Should They Go?
Understanding why Gitmo hasn’t closed requires understanding who exactly is there. The camp holds three types of inmates, each posing different challenges. The first group consists of those 86 detainees deemed safe to release to their home countries or third nations, so long as they can be monitored and accounted for to ensure they don’t take up arms against the US The second group consists of suspected terrorists whom the administration is prosecuting or plans to charge with specific crimes. The third group consists of prisoners too dangerous to simply release–for reasons that could include a suspected organizational role in al-Qaeda, explosives training or in some cases an openly stated desire to kill Americans–but also impossible to put on trial, maybe because of evidence rendered inadmissible by torture; because the troops who captured them didn’t collect evidence; or because they supported al-Qaeda before the US made that a crime for foreigners overseas.
The first group is the easiest to deal with. Obama has the freedom to send the 86 men home on his own. Fifty-six of them are from Yemen–all of whom could be there by now had al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, whose leaders included an ex–Gitmo detainee, not tried to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009, leading Obama to halt detainee transfers back to the country. Obama now says improvements in the Yemeni government’s ability to monitor repatriated detainees allows him to lift his self-imposed moratorium on returning detainees there. He can likewise dispatch the rest of the cleared inmates to other countries unilaterally.
Republicans warn that even some of those detainees deemed safe for release will inevitably join forces with Islamic radicals–as did Saeed al-Shihri months after his 2007 release from Gitmo, eventually rising to the No. 2 spot in al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch before being killed by a drone strike earlier this year. “I don’t trust the government” in Yemen, Republican Representative Peter King told ABC’s This Week on May 26. But they can’t prevent Obama from proceeding. How fast he’ll move is another question: Obama said each of the Yemenis must first undergo yet another review.
The second and third groups are considerably tougher cases. Obama would like to move the trials by military commissions now under way at Guantánamo to a location in the US and bring any new cases against prosecutable suspects on American soil, either in military or civilian courts. He also presumably intends to move to highly secure sites in the US the roughly 46 who can be neither released nor tried, until some solution can be found for them. But right now Obama can’t move any detainees into the US without Congress’s help. In 2009 he tried to resettle some low-risk prisoners in the US and also proposed trying alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Gitmo inmates in federal court. A furious backlash from conservatives and even many Democrats who feared the soft-on-terrorists label prompted Congress to block inmate transfers into the US for any reason.
And while Obama’s May 23 speech may have stirred the hearts of some liberal supporters, it doesn’t seem to have moved the Republicans whose support he’ll need to move detainees into the US, particularly in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. “I don’t get the sense that this pressure is having an impact” on House Republicans, says Representative Adam Smith, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Many Republicans argue that the risk of detainees’ committing future acts of terrorism outweighs the damage Guantánamo does to the US’s image. And they have little interest in Obama’s appetite for moving more terrorism cases into civilian courts.
Lately Obama has tried speaking the language Republicans best understand–spending–by pointing out that each inmate at Gitmo costs $800,000 per year to house, for a total of about $150 million per year in operations. But when it comes to closing Gitmo, Smith says, many of the Republicans whose support Obama would need to approve transfers to US prisons have boxed themselves in politically. House Speaker John Boehner, for instance, has called the prison a “world-class facility” and in 2010 said he wouldn’t vote to close it “if you put a gun to my head.”
The broader themes of Obama’s speech may not have helped the Guantánamo cause either. Far from agreeing with the President’s talk of a severely weakened al-Qaeda and his aspiration to wind down the war on terrorism, some Republicans accused him of complacency and retreat. Newt Gingrich called Obama’s vision “breathtakingly, stunningly naive.” Such talk is hardly the groundwork for a new spirit of cooperation.
Some Problems Have No Solution
Even assuming that the president can close Gitmo by resettling some detainees in other countries and bringing the rest to trials and prisons in the US, a major problem will remain: What to do with the 48 detainees who can’t be tried or released for fear that they will return to the “battlefield” of the war on terrorism? After all, holding prisoners without charges would seem to violate the constitution’s fundamental habeas corpus guarantee. Obama doesn’t claim to have a clear answer, and his speech punted the question. He said only that “once we commit to a process of closing [Guantánamo], I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.”
For now, Obama deals with this legal equivalent of radioactive waste by treating those inmates as prisoners of war. In March 2009, Obama’s lawyers filed a legal brief justifying detention of Gitmo detainees under the laws of war–in this case the war on al-Qaeda, made official by Congress’s September 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which allowed for the invasion of Afghanistan and other counter-terrorism efforts. Ironically, “while it decries Guantánamo as contrary to American values, the Obama administration has convinced courts of its legal validity,” says Matthew Waxman, a former Bush detainee policy official now at Columbia Law School.
Rather than see Obama stretch that validity in new directions, one prominent human rights lawyer has actually argued for keeping Gitmo open. Closing it now “would do more harm than good,” human rights lawyer and Georgetown law professor Jennifer Daskal wrote in a January New York Times op-ed, because it would mean simply opening up a similar camp in the US, thereby “setting a precedent and creating a facility readily available to future Presidents wanting to rid themselves of a range of potentially dangerous actors.”
According to this vision, Gitmo would close when the war on terrorism is finally considered over. Lawyers for detainees might argue that should happen once the US’s lead combat role in Afghanistan ends in late 2014, for instance. Obama also says he’d like Congress to revisit the AUMF, perhaps to narrow its scope or even to declare the war over. “Usually if you’re holding prisoners of war, you release them at the end of hostilities,” says C. Dixon Osburn of Human Rights First.
But at a recent Senate hearing on the AUMF, a top Pentagon official testified that the war on al-Qaeda could last 10 to 20 more years. Some Republicans, including Senator John McCain, have suggested that the law should be broadened, not narrowed or repealed.
Rhetoric about the founders aside, it’s hard to imagine Obama’s releasing trained al-Qaeda members who have not renounced terrorism into the wild, as it were. “The administration’s view seems to be that so long as it’s only a small number of very dangerous al-Qaeda terrorists, it is legitimate to hold them without trial,” Waxman says. Obama would prefer not to hold them in the prison that stains America’s international reputation. But he may find the moral high ground he seeks is simply out of his reach.
When people ask me, “what is the most important thing you learned about Bobby Sands?” I tell them one simple thing. The most important thing about Bobby Sands is not how he died on hunger strike, it is how he lived.
New York – Bıa news agency, 5 November 2012
The hunger strikes of 1980/1981, in which ten men including Bobby Sands died, are the most famous use of that political weapon. Yet hunger striking has a long history in Irish political culture. It is said that the ancient Celts practiced a form of hunger strike called Troscadh or Cealachan, where someone who had been wronged by a man of wealth fasted on his doorstep. Some historians claim that this was a death fast, which usually achieved justice because of the shame one would incur from allowing someone to die on their doorstep. Others say it was a token act that was never carried out to the death – it was simply meant to publicly shame the offender. In any case, both forms of protest have been used quite regularly as a political weapon in modern Ireland.
The history of Irish resistance to British colonialism is full of heroes who died on hunger strike. Some of the best-known include Thomas Ashe, a veteran of the 1916 “Easter Rising”, who died after he was force-fed by the British in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail. In 1920, three men including the mayor of Cork City Terence MacSwiney died on hunger strike in England’s Brixton Prison. In October 1923 two men died when up to 8,000 IRA prisoners went on hunger strike to protest their imprisonment by the new “Irish Free State” (formed after the partition of Ireland in 1921). Three men died on hunger strike against the Irish government in the 1940s. After the IRA was reformed in the 1970s, hunger strikes became common once again. IRA man Michael Gaughan died after being force-fed in a British prison in 1974. And Frank Stagg died in a British jail after a 62-day hunger strike in 1976.
Unlike in Turkey, the Irish make no distinction between a “hunger strike” and a “death fast,” although many hunger strikes have started without the intention of anyone dying. In 1972, IRA prisoners successfully won status as political prisoners after a hunger strike in which no one died. They were then moved to Long Kesh prison camp, where they lived in dormitory-style huts and self-organized their education (including guerrilla training), work (including cooperative handicrafts production), recreation, and attempts to escape and rejoin the conflict. The prisoners used their relative freedom to raise their collective and individual consciousness about their struggle against British occupation of Ireland. They read international revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Irish socialists such as James Connolly. This was, in turn, a foundation for rebuilding the IRA on a basis that included a less hierarchical and more participative structure, with a higher emphasis on community politics as a part of armed struggle.
As the IRA rebuilt their organization in prison the British government also changed strategy. The main pillar of the new strategy was a “conveyor belt” of security operations that included widespread arrests of young Catholic males, heavy interrogation including torture, and juryless courts in which a single judge pronounced guilt often on the sole basis of verbal or written statements under interrogation. At the end of the process was a new prison structure. All prisoners found guilty of offences committed after March 1976 were stripped of political status and committed to cellular confinement in the newly- built “H-Blocks” of Long Kesh prison. There were eight cellblocks built in the shape of an “H” (later copied on Robben Island in South Africa), with 25 cells on each wing and an administrative area on the crossbar of the “H”.
Eventually, this new cellular prison structure -as in Turkey in 2000 after operation “return to life” and the violent transfer of prisoners to F-type prisons – would lead to an intense hunger strike with the deaths of ten men including Bobby Sands.
Here the similarity with the 2000-2006 Turkish hunger strike ends. Instead of embarking immediately on hunger strike, IRA prisoners went through five long years of intense struggle against cellular confinement. Their conditions of confinement were horrific: when an IRA prisoner refused to be criminalized by wearing a prison uniform he was thrown into a small cell without clothing, reading materials (only a bible and a few religious pamphlets), pens, paper, or any appliances such as a radio. The cell included only basic furniture – a bed, a desk, and a locker. The only personal items the prisoners were allowed were soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush, a hairbrush, and four small packets of tissues a month. Having no clothing, the prisoners wore their blankets around their shoulders and waists and, thus, became known as “blanketmen”. The blanketmen were kept in bare lockup 24 hours a day, seven days a week for five years. They were allowed out of their cells only on Sunday to attend religious mass in the block cafeteria and to go on one monthly half-hour visit with family or friends.
In these bare conditions, an incredible thing happened. The prisoners began several years of collective resistance to the regime. Each act of protest was followed by horrible new punishments and deprivations by the authorities. The guards stopped letting the prisoners go to showers. They refused to take away prisoners’ “slop buckets” even though they were overflowing with human waste. They took away all of their furniture except a foam mattress. All the men were allowed to receive from their families was a packet of tissues each month.
When the prisoners tried to slop their urine under their cell doors, the guards pushed it back in and they woke up each morning on foam mattresses soaked in urine. When prisoners threw their feces out the window, the guards threw it back into the cells. Eventually the men were reduced to lying naked in their cells, with their excrement smeared on the walls and their food waste heaped in the corner.
Surprisingly, each new punishment made the prisoners stronger. They went on monthly visits to their relatives and smuggled back small comforts including tobacco, ballpoint pen refills, cigarette papers (for writing on), educational materials (tiny writing on cigarette papers), and plastic wrap (to keep everything protected from bodily fluids when they were hidden inside the prisoner’s body). By smuggling, the prisoners also maintained contact with the outside movement. Their smuggled accounts of prison conditions became the raw material for a public support campaign.
Most importantly, over five years the prisoners built a publicity campaign that ensured that everyone in Ireland knew what was happening in the H-Blocks, despite a ban on supporters of the IRA or its political party Sinn Fein appearing in the public media. They built a “propaganda factory” where each prisoner wrote several letters a day on cigarette papers, and then smuggled them out to be sent to influential people the world over. Bobby Sands smuggled a message to the movement outlining a massive publicity campaign to support the prisoners. He wrote:
The idea to reach people is to pass a simple message to them. Our simple message to everyone will be “Smash H-Block” . . . We want to get this message to everyone, we want to make it impossible for people to forget it, no matter who they are or where they are, they shall see it, hear it. Backing this will be material on H-Block to stir people’s emotions and to arouse them and activate them.
Sands suggested that the movement would put up “millions of posters” and that the slogan “Smash H- Block” would be written and then re-written on every wall and bridge in Ireland and even in Britain, on highways and public buildings. People should see pictures of children in t-shirts or carrying signs that read “Don’t Let My Daddy Die in H-Block.”
And this is what happened. Despite the media blackout in Britain and in Ireland, the message of the IRA prisoners on protest was soon known by everyone. They saw it everywhere they went, even on the money that they spent in their local shops (people wrote “H-Block” on money before they spent it). And then the message spread through the huge Irish emigrant communities in North America, Britain, and Australia.
I spent six years researching a biography of Bobby Sands. When people ask me, “what is the most important thing you learned about Bobby Sands?” I tell them one simple thing. The most important thing about Bobby Sands is not how he died on hunger strike, it is how he lived. Through his energy, he built a movement and a community inside of the H-Blocks that the world could not ignore.
THEN, in that terrible time beginning in late 1980, Irish prisoners began to go on hunger strike to the death. A first hunger strike ended in failure in December 1980, when its leader told the prison authorities to feed a hunger striker who was dying. By the time Bobby Sands began a hunger strike in March 1981, the men who went on it knew that they would likely die.
There was no pressure on any prisoner to participate. Quite the opposite. The Commanding Officer of the IRA in the prison sent a letter to every man and woman who volunteered for the hunger strike, trying to talk them out of participating. The letter stated that if they began a hunger strike death was the likely outcome. They had to be sure of themselves because if they “backed down at the last minute,” they would do irreparable damage to the other hunger strikers. The letter said that there was no shame in withdrawing their name and that the hunger strike was entirely voluntary. Each prisoner should be sure that if they started to hunger strike they would continue, if necessary until death.
Ten prisoners died on the hunger strike, led by Bobby Sands. They won a clear moral victory. The world’s media overwhelmingly supported them. The New York Times said that Bobby Sands, who won election as a member of British parliament before he died, had “bested an implacable British prime minister.” National parliaments honored the hunger strikers with resolutions and moments of silence. Political prisoners in Chiapas in Mexico, who would later form the Zapatista movement, went on hunger strike following the Irish example in the summer of 1981. Nelson Mandela and young ANC prisoners in South Africa did likewise. This all happened because of dozens of Irish prisoners went on hunger strike, including the ten men who died. But it also happened because of the five years of struggle and building that the blanketmen and their supporters on the outside had accomplished, in spite of a hostile media and a ban on their representatives appearing in the public media.
After the hunger strike finally ended, the Irish prisoners regained political status. They soon had control over prison spaces in the H-blocks, which they ran again on collective lines. After they left prison, many prisoners took their politics into their communities, creating and participating in alternative Irish schools, housing projects, cooperatives, development organizations, arts groups, and the like.
And the Irish hunger strikers were remembered around the world. The street in front of the British embassy in Tehran is still called “Bobby Sands Street.” Turkish prisoners conducted a horrific death fast between 2000 and 2006. They tell me that the code word they used for their action was “Bobby Sands.” In the US state of Ohio in 2011, three death-sentenced prisoners had been kept in total isolation for nearly twenty years. They read about Bobby Sands and the Irish hunger strikers and were encouraged to organize their own hunger strike for the right to have contact visits instead of visiting their loved ones behind security glass. They won their struggle after 12 days. In California, later in the same year, 6,000 prisoners went on hunger strike. Again, they read about Bobby Sands and his comrades in Ireland and they became convinced that they, too, could do something about the horrific conditions of isolation in which they had been held, some for more than twenty years. In both Ohio and California, the prisoners took an important message from Bobby Sands and his Irish comrades: they mobilized a public campaign outside of prison that would support them emotionally and put pressure on the government to listen to their just demands.
Hunger striking is a horrific thing. It is a slow and painful way to die. Those who choose to do it, do so because their conditions have become so intolerable that continuing to live in them is worse than going through this horrible ideal. It is their last step of resistance. They are moved by feelings of solidarity and love for their fellow prisoners, to a degree that the rest of us cannot imagine.
Fidel Castro perhaps came closest to expressing the enormity of the act of hunger striking, when he praised Bobby Sands and his comrades:
Tyrants shake in the presence of men who have such strength as to die for their ideals through sixty days of hunger strike! Next to this example, what were the three days of Christ on Cavalry as a symbol of human sacrifice down the centuries?
And now hunger strike has once again returned to Turkey. The experiences of Ireland and North America show that there is only one thing that can help them win their struggle: public knowledge and public support. Without it, they are on their own.
* Denis O’Hearn is Professor of Sociology at State University of New York – Binghamton and author of the definitive biography of Bobby Sands, Nothing but an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation.
What are the implications for the US if the hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay result in death?
The result will be widespread rioting in the Muslim world. The deaths will further fuel the resolve and enhance the aims of Muslim terrorists. A possible fragmentation of what friends the US has left in the Middle East is also a possible outcome
On May 5, 1981, imprisoned Irish Catholic militant Bobby Sands dies after refusing food for 66 days in protest of his treatment as a criminal rather than a political prisoner by British authorities. His death immediately kicked-off widespread rioting in Belfast, as young Irish-Catholic militants clashed with police and British Army patrols and started fires. Bobby Sands was born into a Catholic family in a Protestant area of Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1954. In 1972, sectarian violence forced his family to move to public housing in a Catholic area, where Sands was recruited by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Provisional IRA, formed in 1969 after a break with the Official IRA, advocated violence and terrorism as a means of winning independence for Northern Ireland from Britain. (The Provisional IRA, the dominant branch, is generally referred to as simply the IRA.) After independence, according to the IRA, Northern Ireland would be united with the Republic of Ireland in a socialist Irish republic. In 1972, Sands was arrested and convicted of taking part in several IRA robberies. Because he was convicted for IRA activities, he was given “special category status” and sent to a prison that was more akin to a prisoner of war camp because it allowed freedom of dress and freedom of movement within the prison grounds. He spent four years there. After less than a year back on the streets, Sands was arrested in 1977 for gun possession near the scene of an IRA bombing and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Because the British government had enacted a policy of “criminalization” of Irish terrorists in 1976, Sands was imprisoned as a dangerous criminal in the Maze Prison south of Belfast. During the next few years, from his cell in the Maze, he joined other imprisoned IRA terrorists in protests demanding restoration of the freedoms they had previously enjoyed under special category status. In 1980, a hunger strike lasted 53 days before it was called off when one of the protesters fell into a coma. In response, the British government offered a few concessions to the prisoners, but they failed to deliver all they had promised and protests resumed. Sands did not take a direct part in the 1980 strike, but he acted as the IRA-appointed leader and spokesperson of the protesting prisoners. On March 1, 1981 (the fifth anniversary of the British policy of criminalization) Bobby Sands launched a new hunger strike. He took only water and salt, and his weight dropped from 70 to 40 kilos. After two weeks, another protester joined the strike, and six days after that, two more. On April 9, in the midst of the strike, Sands was elected to a vacant seat in the British Parliament from Fermanagh and South Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Parliament subsequently introduced legislation to disqualify convicts serving prison sentences for eligibility for Parliament. His election and fears of violence after his death drew international attention to Sands’ protest. In the final week of his life, Pope John Paul II sent a personal envoy to urge Sands to give up the strike. He refused. On May 3, he fell into a coma, and in the early morning of May 5 he died. Fighting raged for days in Belfast, and tens of thousands attended his funeral on May 7. After Sands’ death, the hunger strike continued, and nine more men perished before it was called off on October 3, 1981, under pressure from Catholic Church leaders and the prisoners’ families. In the aftermath of the strike, the administration of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed to give in to several of the protesters’ demands, including the right to wear civilian clothing and the right to receive mail and visits. Prisoners were also allowed to move more freely and no longer were subject to harsh penalties for refusing prison work. Official recognition of their political status, however, was not granted.
NEW YORK – Why add to something that is not supposed to exist?
The something in question is the Unites States’ prison in Guantánamo Bay, for which the Pentagon recently requested $49 million in extra funding. Despite Barack Obama’s promise in 2009 – one of his first as President – to shut down “Gitmo,” the US evidently has no intention of doing so anytime soon. In fact, the only thing concerning Gitmo that the Obama administration has shut down is the office of the special envoy, Daniel Fried, who had been tasked with its closure. The US State Department reassigned Fried in late January, and he will not be replaced.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphHow better to memorialize that decision than with a building boom at the prison? The new facility for which the money is to be earmarked will house 106 prisoners (the precise number is uncertain) who have been neither tried nor charged.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphEight of the prisoners are now entering the second month of a hunger strike. According to the spokesman for the US Southern Command, which oversees Gitmo, the hunger strikers are disillusioned, because they believed Obama’s pledge to close Gitmo. Indeed, they are cleared to leave, and it is only Obama’s failure to keep his promise – and the US Congress’s failure to legislate their transfer – that is keeping them there. So now they feel that the only way they can get the world’s attention is to “do something drastic.”
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphOne reason why the Pentagon needs to build a costly new facility has to do with the role of private contractors in driving detention policy. At Gitmo, corporate contractors run the show. They share signage with military units; enjoy better housing than military personnel; run the food services; and import Southeast Asian workers to build the gigantic infrastructure, which was new when I visited in 2009 (calling into question the “deterioration” cited to justify the latest cash infusion).
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphContractors also ran the military tribunal facility, and even set policy – deciding, for example, what could be told to the press. Based on some disputes that I witnessed, contractors appeared to outrank soldiers.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphThe vast, often undocumentable profits that flow to these companies go a long way toward explaining why facilities like Gitmo – and privately owned and operated prisons in the US itself – never close. The transfer of public money to private corporations is far more attractive than old-fashioned market capitalism.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphBut then there is the brutality of the prison. I recently toured Alcatraz, the former US federal prison in San Francisco Bay. Like Gitmo, Alcatraz was created, in the 1930’s, to house what was then “the worst of the worst” – the Muslim terrorists (or accused terrorists) of their day. Mass murderers and gangsters – including, for example, Al Capone – were incarcerated there.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphAlcatraz was closed 50 years ago, in 1963, owing to its perceived inhumanity, and the prisoners were transferred elsewhere. Yet I was struck by how much more humane the facility and regime at Alcatraz were compared to Gitmo.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphFor starters, prisoners at Alcatraz who broke rules or were violent were punished by being put in “D Block,” where the cells had no windows; at Gitmo, all the cells that journalists are shown lack windows or natural light. Solitary confinement in D Block was seen as the harshest punishment, and it was never used for more than 48 hours at a time. At Guantánamo – and in other US facilities – prisoners are placed in solitary confinement for days or weeks at a time, which can lead to psychosis.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphLikewise, in Alcatraz, prisoners had access to a fully stocked library, monthly visits from loved ones, and mail delivery. At Gitmo, contrary to Red Cross rules, prisoners may not receive visits or mail from family, their reading is dramatically curtailed, and news is censored. They are not even notified of the deaths of parents and children.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphPrisoners at Alcatraz also had basic privacy. They were stripped naked on entry, but then wore clothing and showered in single-sex groups with male guards. By contrast, prisoners in Guantánamo must shower in individual shower stalls that are placed in main hallways and fronted by glass, leaving them naked in full view of female guards.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphAnd, of course, the prisoners in Alcatraz had been tried in a court of law, defended by lawyers whose communications with them were privileged, and duly convicted of their crimes. The men in Guantánamo have never been tried; their lawyers’ communications are monitored; and their lawyers may not even report to journalists or tribunals what was done to their clients to extract confessions, because – in a twist worthy of Franz Kafka – investigators’ methods, which detainees claim include torture, are classified.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphThe eight hunger strikers are being fed through tubes inserted into their stomachs. This is a brutal process – the men are strapped onto restraint chairs twice a day and force-fed, in a facility that I witnessed. During my visit in 2009, a Yemeni hunger striker, Mohammad Saleh, died. As with all hunger strikers who have died at Gitmo, the US military ruled his death a suicide.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphPerhaps, someday, tourists will travel to Guantánamo and look in horror and amazement at what America built. Until then, Americans need to ask themselves what has coarsened in the national conscience between 1963 and today. How is it that a prison too brutal for gangsters, too un-American to house the worst of the worst, was more humane than a place that Americans are spending millions to enlarge?