London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The White House says it is closely monitoring the growing hunger strike by prisoners at the notorious Guantánamo Bay detention center, while defense attorneys for the inmates and the US military continue to trade accusations in the media.
The severity of the crisis has prompted The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to move forward a planned trip to the facilities in order to check on the condition of the inmates.
According to Captain Robert Durand, director of Public Affairs at Guantánamo, as of yesterday there were 31 hunger strikers and 11 receiving enteral feeds.
The inmates at the facility are angry at what has been described by defense attorneys as “a complete change in the conditions of confinement.”
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, defense lawyer Army Capt. Jason Wright said that in early February a big shakedown took place at the camp where guards went cell by cell looking for portable contraband. However, two of the detainees saw the Qu’ran being mishandled and treated in a rough manner while the detainees were being led to the recreation yard.
During that same search, guards started removing so-called comfort items, including pictures of family members, books, extra blankets, and even legal documents belonging to the detainees.
“For some unknown reason, the guards decided to start ratcheting up the pressure on the detainees,” Captain Wright told Asharq Al-Awsat. “The real reason for the hunger strike is the mistreatment of the Qu’ran.”
Captain Wright went on to say that the detainees started pleading with the US authorities not to search the Qu’ran because a Muslim would never put any item in the holy book or desecrate it. Even more, there have not been any security breaches where contraband was found in copies of the Qu’ran.
“All they are asking is for the US government not to search the Qu’ran, and if they do it they should do it a manner that respects it, such as using a metal wand or some other equipment that won’t desecrate it,” Captain Wright added.
However, Guantánamo Public Affairs Director Captain Durand disputes this narrative. In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, the captain said, “Detainees and their supporters use the media, including social media, to spread false rumors of abuse and mistreatment to gain sympathy and attention. These tactics have been employed off and on since Joint Task Force Guantánamo opened in 2002, and are consistent with Al-Qaeda training contained in a terrorist training manual known as the Manchester Document. These are coordinated acts specifically designed to attract media attention.”
Captain Durand went on to say that it is untrue that the hunger strike is in any way related to conditions or events in the camp. “The detainees in Camp 6 live in a communal environment. They do not lock down in their cells at night. They have satellite TV, video games, personal DVD players and current newspapers delivered from around the world in a variety of languages,” he added.
Hunger strikes are not a new phenomenon at Guantánamo. In 2005, 131 prisoners went on a hunger strike at a time when the facility held approximately 500 prisoners.
However, defense lawyer Captain Wright says the conditions at Camp 6 are inhumane.
“There are reports now that they are turning down the temperature in the cells, [and] also restricting other detainee’s movements; their access to the recreation areas have been cut off. What ultimately this is, is a proxy of the utter hopelessness and despair that these men have experienced in Guantánamo. Many have been held for 11 years without charges or trial or any hope of going home.”
The two sides are also locked in a battle over what constitutes a hunger strike, which has led to different figures being released to the public.
According to Guantánamo authorities, as of yesterday there are 31 hunger strikers out of a detainee population of 166, with 11 of them receiving enteral feeds. That figure is disputed by attorneys representing the inmates.
“They are playing games on the definition of what a hunger strike is,” Captain Wright told Asharq Al-Awsat. “ They are saying a hunger strike is when you miss nine consecutive meals, and they are almost relishing that fact that they can play these show games by saying the detainee had a snack on his own, so he is no longer a hunger striker and should not be included in the total,” he added.
Concerning the medical treatment afforded to the inmates, Captain Durand said that the medical staff continuously monitors and provides outstanding medical care to detainees in custody. According to him, the health and well-being of detainees is their primary mission and they take this duty as seriously as they would a duty to treat US service members or any patient in their care.
Regarding reports of limited access to their lawyers, Captain Durand emphasized that lawyers for detainees continue to have access to Guantánamo by military airlift, and that many are there now meeting with their clients.
However, according to information obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat, the military has cut off commercial flights to Guantánamo Bay, and the only way of getting there is on a military flight from St. Andrews air force base in Washington, D.C., or on another flight that occasionally leaves from Jacksonville, Florida.
“What they have done is severely curtail the access of the detainees for most of the civilian habeas attorneys. It requires them not only to travel to Guantánamo Bay on a military-contracted flight which is a great restriction and barrier on the ability of the civilian habeas attorneys to meet with their clients,” Captain Wright said.
Regarding what the military is doing to resolve the situation, Captain Durand told Asharq Al-Awsat, “The hunger strikers have created an unfortunate situation with no clear path to resolution. They have presented no demands that we can meet—we will not admit to Qu’ran abuse which did not take place, we will not exempt the Qu’ran from search, which will continue to be in a respectful manner.”
However, the stories of despair continue. According to Captain Wright, while visiting the detention center last week he was told that detainees have now started writing the letters “SOS” on the outside of their cells, the Morse code for help. When asked whom are they asking for help, they responded the media, social societies—anybody: “We just want somebody to care about us, and to know what’s happening here. We want someone to help.”
Moreover, lawyers for inmates received a letter from the prosecution three weeks ago saying that when it comes to the majority of the detainees, the prosecution has no plans to charge them with offences in the foreseeable future.
The US government initially denied that there was a hunger strike, then slowly admitted to four, then eight and then 25 hunger strikers. Now, the figure is at 31.
According to defense attorneys, the vast majority of inmates in Camps 5 and 6 are on hunger strike, except for a few who are elderly or otherwise sick.
“I can assure that these men are engaged in a legitimate hunger strike and what is happening is that their hunger strike is about them being hungry for justice, hungry for freedom, and for the Obama administration to do the right thing,” Captain Wright added.