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.
Tony Rochford hasn’t taken food for 11 days – but insists he will not end his strike unless the property tax is repealed.
A MAN who today enters the twelfth day of his hunger strike against the property tax has admitted he does not expect to survive for much longer.
Tony Rochford, who turns 45 next week, has been on hunger strike in opposition to the new tax since last Monday.
Rochford has lost nine kilograms (about 19 pounds) since his strike began – surviving only on water and black coffee – and is continuing to lose weight as he refuses to end his protest.
He believes his home is now worth about €280,000, making it liable for an annual property tax of €495.
He claims, however, that his mortgage lender refuses to enter into any negotiations with him, because he and his wife had already been given a moratorium on their repayments – which has since concluded – and because he has not entered into significant arrears.
Liam Heffernan was arrested on June 12 and has been on hunger strike since last Monday.
Liam Heffernan was arrested at Aughoose last Wednesday for allegedly obstructing Shell construction vehicles as they moved in to bore a tunnel to carry a pipeline in the area.
Campaigners claim his arrest was without lawful authority or reasonable excuse.
They say Heffernan was taken to Belmullet Garda Station where he was offered the opportunity to enter into a bail bond, on the condition that he stay away from Shell’s tunnelling compound at Aughoose.
A Shell to Sea statement said the campaigner explained his motives to the judge, who told him his arguments were better directed towards the government or the High Court.
Heffernan then agreed to enter bail conditions pending another court appearance on July 10, but campaigners say the judge found unspecified problems with his signature and remanded him in custody until the court’s next sitting.
He began a hunger strike on Monday and will tomorrow mark his tenth day in prison, when he is again due before Harristown Court in Castlerea.
Shell to Sea has asked supporters to attend the court in solidarity with the campaigner.
WASHINGTON–(ENEWSPF)–June 6 – The US authorities at Guantanamo have publicly denied that they are force feeding hunger-striking detainees. While detainees continue to describe being force-fed.
In a BBC Radio 4 Today report from the prison, Colonel John Bogdan – who is in charge of the prison camp – denied that the US is force-feeding detainees on hunger-strike. When BBC reporter Jonathan Beale, reporting from the camp, said:“I’d call it force-feeding” Colonel Bogdan, replied: “It’s a bit of semantics…it is a medical procedure. We do this enteral feeding to regular patients in regular hospitals who need to be fed.”
Marine General John Kelly – Chief of the US Southern Command – also recently denied that the US engages in force-feeding, a practice denounced by the American Medical Association, the World Medical Association and the UN, saying: “We don’t force-feed right now at Gitmo.”
Yet detainees who are being force-fed continue to describe the process to their lawyers in phone calls, letters and during legal visits. Up to 140 detainees are now on hunger strike and the force-feeding figures are steadily rising – to 41 in the main camps this morning, according to the US military.
Reprieve client Abu Wa’el told one of his lawyers on a recent phone call. “I am protesting peacefully and they are taking me forcefully…they brought ERF and starting force-feeding, forcefully…they take me forcefully to feed me…all I am doing is a peaceful protest…but they are putting me on a force-feeding chair. Really, it should be called a torture chair and not a feeding chair.”
Another of Reprieve’s clients, Ahmed Belbacha, has said: “Later, they began feeding me through the nose The guard entered the tube through my nose, and then pumped the feeder. The food rushed into my stomach too quickly and I started to feel ill. I asked him to reduce the speed. He not only refused, but tried to turn it up.”
In a recently published op-ed in the New York Times, Samir Mokbel described the process: “I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.”
Cori Crider, Reprieve’s Strategic Director and counsel for several hunger-strikers, said: “If the commander-in-chief calls it force-feeding, you’d think those below him would take note. Instead the military ‘PR’ strategy is to peddle an alternative reality that no one believes. My clients are protesting their indefinite detention using the only tool at their disposal: a hunger strike. They don’t want to be fed. And yet detainees are being brutally force-fed. It’s a fact.”
Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.
It depends on how you define success. Hunger strikers sometimes win clear victories. Scholars credit suffragette Marion Wallace-Dunlop with the first political hunger strike of modern times—and it was a smashing success. After her 1909 arrest for stenciling a portion of the British Bill of Rights on an outer wall of the House of Commons, Wallace insisted that she be treated as a political prisoner rather than an ordinary criminal. She refused food for nearly four days. Fearing for her life, the authorities released her from prison altogether, going well beyond her demands. There are, in contrast, plenty of failed hunger strikes, such as Dan Choi and James Pietrangelo’s 2010 fast to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The pair abandoned the hunger strike after a week, and the rule remained in place for more than a year after that. While such cases of clear winners and losers are salient, the outcome of many—perhaps most—hunger strikes is more difficult to call.
In March 1981, Irish nationalist prisoners in Northern Ireland embarked on a hunger strike for the same reason that Wallace-Dunlop did in 1909: to be treated as political prisoners. That would mean the right to wear civilian clothes, the right to education and recreational opportunities, freedom from work obligations, and a set of other benefits not afforded to other inmates. The hunger strikers gained so much renown that Bobby Sands, the most famous of them, was elected to Parliament during the protest. By Oct. 3, when the protest ended, 10 of the strikers were dead, including Sands. The British government eventually granted most of the prisoners’ requests, and public opinion shifted massively in favor of the protesters.
Muddled endings are more common than deaths. Hundreds of Kurdish prisoners embarked on a hunger strike late last year and demanded, among other things, that high-profile inmate Abdullah Öcalan be released from solitary confinement. Öcalan called the fast to an end after 68 days, when the government finally agreed to allow Kurdish people the right to speak Kurdish in Turkish courts. Öcalan himself, however, remained in solitary confinement. (A recent deal between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatists may soon change Öcalan’s imprisonment status.)
It’s hard to calculate a winning strategy for hunger strikers, but a few themes emerge. The first rule of hunger striking is to have a demand that is reasonably achievable within the time frame of a hunger strike. That means around 60 days if the hunger striker is refusing all nutrition. Those who allow themselves sweetened coffee or energy drinks can go significantly longer, building up publicity and pressure on the opposition. That tactic recently paid off for William Lecuyer, a New Jersey inmate who was placed in solitary confinement for refusing to submit a urine sample. Lecuyer insisted that the failure was the guard’s fault—he allegedly made Lecuyer wait so long that he had to empty his bladder before the test—and Lecuyer consumed only liquids for more than a year. The Department of Corrections finally caved in March and promised a new hearing for Lecuyer, who has lost nearly one-half of his body weight.
Choi and Pietrangelo’s failed protest against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy illustrates the second rule of hunger striking: It works best as a last resort. A hunger strike is an appeal to the public. If people perceive a hunger strike as frivolous, possibly because less-risky alternatives were available, they’re unlikely to blame the government. That’s why inmates are among the few people who can launch a successful hunger strike.
These rules don’t apply to the famous and powerful. If you’re Gandhi, the world is so worried about your health that any threat of self-harm is taken seriously from the beginning.
Aamer has been cleared for release twice, but is still behind bars after 11 years. He has never been charged or faced trial but the US refuses to allow him to return to the UK, despite official protests by the British government.
A 40-strong medical back-up team has arrived at Guantánamo Bay, as the number of inmates taking part in a hunger strike continues to rise, the US military has confirmed. By Monday, 100 detainees were refusing food, with 21 having been approved for force-feeding.
Authorities said that the “influx” of medical reinforcements had been weeks in the planning. But the news will fuel speculation that the condition of hunger-striking prisoners at Guantánamo Bay is deteriorating. Shaker Aamer, the last British resident being kept at the centre, told his lawyer earlier this month that authorities will soon see fatalities as a result of the current action.
“I cannot give you numbers and names, but people are dying here,” said Aamer, who is refusing food.
The action is a protest against conditions at the centre, as well as the indefinite nature of the remaining prisoners’ confinement. Aamer has been cleared for release twice, but is still behind bars after 11 years. He has never been charged or faced trial but the US refuses to allow him to return to the UK, despite official protests by the British government.
Of the 166 detainees left at Guantánamo, almost two-thirds are on hunger-strike. Five of those approved by guards to be subjected to force-feeding are in hospital.
Increased media attention to the plight of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay has led to renewed calls for President Barack Obama to close the camp. In the face of pressure from Congress, Obama dropped a 2008 campaign pledge to close the camp.
The current hunger strike is believed to have begun on 6 February and initially involved a minority of detainees. But the number taking part has steadily increased. Two weeks ago, guards attempted to break the resolve of those refusing food by moving detainees from communal areas and placing them in single cells, where they could be monitored more closely. That action led to violent clashes in which US troops fired four “less-than-lethal” rounds on inmates.
US authorities said on Monday that the decision to bring in a back-up medical team was made as increasing numbers of inmates began to refuse food. “We will not allow a detainee to stave themselves to death and we will continue to treat each person humanely,” a Guantánamo Bay spokesman, Lt Col Samuel House, said.
He added: “Detainees have the right to peacefully protest, but we have the responsibility to ensure that they conduct their protest safely and humanely.”
Detainees Frequently Fainting as Health Worsens
“Code yellow,” an emergency where a prisoner has lost consciousness, is now a regular event in the cellblocks, forcing medics to rush in and see if the detainee is still alive, or just passed out from hunger. So far, it has been the later, but as the strike continues it will eventually lead to deaths.
Over 100 prisoners are now believed to be involved in the hunger strike, which began in February to protest the confiscation of detainees’ Qurans during a security sweep. The Pentagon initially claimed only nine strikers, but now admit to over 50. They claim the rest aren’t “official” hunger strikers, and accused them of “cheating” and sneaking snacks.
Lawyers and human rights groups have urged reforms at the prison to end the strike, as well as releasing people already exonerated instead of just keeping them forever. The military seems to be taking the opposite approach, punishing strikers and putting everyone in solitary cells in the hopes of scaring them into abandoning the strike. With many detainees already cleared for release and apparently going nowhere, they remain convinced they have nothing to lose.
The detainees used self-made weapons to resist the transfer, thus forcing guards to fire, the US military said in a statement.
“Some detainees resisted with improvised weapons, and in response, four less-than-lethal rounds were fired,” Navy Captain Robert Durand said in a news release.
Officials say no guards or detainees have been seriously injured.
The reason for the move was explained because the detainees covered surveillance cameras, windows and partitions, preventing guards from observing them during a hunger strike that has been continuing for more than two months.
Round-the-clock monitoring is necessary to ensure security, order, and safety as detainees continued a prolonged hunger strike by refusing regular camp-provided meals,” Durand said.
Over the years Guantanamo detainees participated in various forms of protests, Durand explained to RT, adding that this new coordinated effort has created an “unsafe situation.”
“We made the decision to move detainees into individual cells based on the detainees’ continued efforts to block observation,” Durand stressed. “We recently determined that the risk to the health and security of certain detainees had reached an unacceptable level due to non-compliant behavior.”
Each detainee’s physical and mental health has been evaluated after the sweep.
“Detainees may continue to hunger strike as a form of protest,” Durand said, also adding that moving them into individual cells has allowed JTF to “ensure that detainees are not being coerced by other detainees to participate in the hunger strike.”
Although Guantanamo authorities claim the detainees were resisting with “improvised weapons,” Cindy Panuco, a lawyer representing one of them told RT that the truth is still to be determined as “there is no way they could have any sort of weapons.”
“That is interesting to find out they have makeshift weapons,” Panuco said. “Whenever we have gone down to visit our clients the only thing they are allowed are small ball-point inserts of a pen… almost like straws. That is pretty much all they are allowed. So I don’t see, especially given the invasive searches that were conducted in February, what kind of makeshift weapons the government is referring to.”
She believes that isolation is just another effort to undermine solidarity among the prison population.
“If they are together, if they are in a communal living space they can communicate and at least support each other and now that they are being isolated, it is another form of torment. To be taken away from your friends and comrades, who were there with you, makes it much more difficult to endure what is already a very difficult situation.”
The detention camp at the Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base in Cuba holds 166 men, most of them captured more than a decade ago in different counter-terrorism operations.
Saturday’s early-morning sweep took place in Camp 6, a medium-security building where 80 to 100 detainees lived in cells that open into communal bays where they could eat, pray and watch television together. As part of the hunger strike, prisoners have been refusing to let food carts enter some of the bays.
Lawyers say most of Gitmo inmates are currently participating in the hunger strike. The US administration, however, is only acknowledging 43 cases, including 11 people who are being force-fed liquid nutrients through tubes inserted into their noses and down to their stomachs.
The hunger strike began in February in protest to the seizure of personal items from detainees’ cells. Some prisoners told their lawyers that their Qurans had been mistreated during the cell searches, which the US military denied.
Lawyers say the hunger strike is caused by the fact that most detainees are held there without being charged, overwhelmed by the depressing feeling they may never leave the prison.
Obama pledged to close the facility at the start of his first term, but has failed to do it so far.
The lawyers said they were concerned about the critical health condition of the prisoners, who began the hunger strike on February 6.
They also said the majority of the 166 detainees held at the base stopped eating and many lost dangerous amounts of weight and were now being forced-fed through the nose.
The lawyers also noted that the lack of drinkable water had led to medical conditions affecting the kidneys, urinary system, and the stomach of the prisoners on strike.
The hunger strike began after the Gitmo staff reportedly seized their personal belongings of the inmates, including letters, photographs and copies of the Holy Qur’an in a sacrilegious manner during searches of their cells.
The prisoners are also protesting against their indefinite detention without charge or trial.
An attorney representing thirteen hunger striking prisoners said on Saturday that the inmates were prepared to die if their demands are not met.
“Suffering for these years, the torture, the isolation, the brutality by the guards have made it intolerable to the point where so many of the prisoners have decided that they will try until death,” said Gloria La Riva with Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition.
Reports show that only six of the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison or one in 28 are facing trial. Close to 90 of the prisoners, or more than one in two, have been cleared for release. The United States, however, continues to keep them locked up and has no imminent plans of letting them go.
US President Barack Obama had vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay prison as a main premise for his first term election. The facility, however, remains open five years later.
Hunger strikes among an estimated 100 detainees have continued to worsen, with the military now conceding that as many as 28 are “officially” hunger striking, and three of the detainees have been hospitalized as their conditions deteriorate. 10 others are also being force-fed.
The deteriorating health is largely what was expected, as hunger strikers have been taking water, but no food for months, and medical experts have warned that permanent consequences could happen soon, with deaths possible in a matter of weeks.
The hunger strikes began after the confiscation of several detainees’ Qu’rans, and is continuing with many detainees resenting being held without charges more or less forever.
The military has been very slow in recognizing strikers, and even today continues to insist that it believes many of the detainees are “cheating” and sneaking snacks when they aren’t looking.
The “not looking” factor has been the Pentagon’s go-to excuse for not recognizing the strikers as real, insisting that they deliver communal meals and don’t really keep an eye on who is eating and who isn’t, and insisting that the numbers cited by human rights lawyers are “exaggerated.” Yet with Pentagon recognitions jumping several-fold in the past week, they are rapidly coming to admit the problem.
With many of the detainees already approved for release, it would be a particular embarrassment if some of them began dying in hunger strikes simply because the Obama Administration hasn’t gotten around to letting them go for so long. This was a driving factor behind not admitting the problem was real in the first place, but with it clearly not going away, there will hopefully be some move to give in to detainee demands.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay prison has grown and now involves at least 21 men, a U.S. military official said Monday while denying reports trickling out from prisoners through lawyers that there is a more widespread protest and lives are in danger.
No prisoner faces any immediate health threat from the strike, though two have been admitted to the prison medical clinic because of dehydration, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention center at the U.S. base in Cuba.
In recent weeks, as lawyers returned from Guantanamo with accounts of clients weak from hunger and an angry standoff with guards, the military had said no more than a handful of prisoners met the definition of being on hunger strike, which includes missing nine consecutive meals.
That figure rose to 14 on Friday, and then grew by seven over the weekend. It has become the largest and most sustained protest at Guantanamo in several years, but Durand insisted there is no evidence to support reports of a strike involving most of the 166 men held there.
“The detainees certainly have the support of one another,” Durand said. “But if it was 166, I would tell you it was 166. I don’t have a reason to lowball or pad the numbers.”
A prisoner from Yemen, Yasein Esmail, told his attorney that he lost about 35 pounds (15 kilograms) after striking for 29 days and was struggling to keep his balance, according to notes taken by the lawyer, Washington-based David Remes, during a March 5 visit.
“Many of the detainees are desperate,” Esmail told his attorney. “They feel like they’re living in graves.”
The U.S. military does not identify hunger strikers and will not let journalists speak to prisoners so the account could not be verified.
A letter sent Thursday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that was signed by more than 50 lawyers who have represented Guantanamo prisoners said they had received reports that “the health of the men has continued to deteriorate in alarming and potentially irreparable ways.” They urged him to meet with them and work out a solution with the military officials in charge of the prison.
Lawyers say the protest began Feb. 6, when a relatively new officer in charge of camp operations, Army Col. John Bogdan, ordered an intensive search of the communal pod-like area where a majority of detainees are held. Guards confiscated personal items such as family letters, photos and mail from attorneys. The prisoners also said government-issued Korans were searched in a way they considered religious desecration.
Another apparent factor in the protest is the fact that the U.S. has largely stopped transferring and releasing prisoners because of security restrictions imposed by Congress and the administration of President Obama.
Durand said there had been no changes in the way searches are conducted. He said Korans are searched for contraband by Muslim translators, not guards, and are treated in a respectful way. The protest is simply a way to attract attention, he said.
“They have sort of fallen out of the public view and most of the legal issues have been settled,” Durand said. “If you want to burst back into the media then you have to start complaining about either Koran abuse or detainee abuse or deteriorating conditions.”
Hunger strikes have been a fixture at Guantanamo since shortly after it opened in January 2002. The largest one began in the summer of 2005 and reached a peak of around 131 prisoners, when the facility held about 500 detainees. The U.S. military broke the protest by strapping detainees down and force-feeding them a liquid nutrient mix to prevent them from starving themselves to death. As of Monday, the U.S. was feeding eight of the 21 prisoners on strike, Durand said.