Defense attorneys for several Guantánamo detainees blasted the U.S. military’s claim that the number of hunger strikers at the prison has significantly dropped.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Samuel House said in an email announcement Sunday that only 81 of the 106 inmates who had been striking in early July were still refusing food. But the lawyers accused the military of massaging the numbers by counting inmates as not on strike if they had taken food to break their daily fasts during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that began July 8.
The attorneys said the military is using the improved numbers to distract from the plight of the 166 prisoners at Guantánamo, many of whom were picked up during the earliest months of the war in Afghanistan. Most are still waiting to be charged.
“The military are cheating on the numbers as usual,” said defense attorney Clive Stafford Smith, who represents Shaker Aamer, held at Guantánamo since his arrest in November 2001. “I was on the phone with Shaker late Friday and he predicted they would say this. Some detainees are taking a token amount of food as part of the traditional breaking of the fast at the end of each day in Ramadan, so that is now conveniently allowing them to be counted as not striking.”
The hunger strike started in February and peaked at 106, according to the military’s report. Currently 45 prisoners are force-fed a liquid nutritional supplement twice a day through gastric tubes inserted up the nose while the recipient is strapped to a chair. (The above photo depicts a reenactment of a force-feeding at a recent protest.)
Though military officials refused to link the drop to the start of Ramadan, it came as some prisoners who had been held in isolation since April were able to resume communal activities and prayers during the religious holiday.
The longevity of the hunger strike has put the military prison back on the national agenda. President Obama had promised to close it during his first day in office in 2009. And in 2010, 86 inmates were recommended for a transfer, but remain incarcerated. Some of these prisoners have already been cleared of any terror-related activities, but still have not been released.
Seeking to shine a spotlight on the issue, rapper Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, collaborated with the human rights organization Reprieve to film a video of him undergoing the force-feeding procedure used at Guantánamo. The video was unveiled last week and quickly went viral. Since its release, a social media movement #StandFast has logged more than 1,200 pledges from people vowing to go without food to protest the prison’s ongoing operation.
— RogMundo (@RogerOgM) July 15, 2013
Defense attorney David Remes, who represents several Gitmo detainees, said he was also skeptical that the hunger strike was dwindling inside the prison, even temporarily. “I wouldn’t read too much into the drop in the military’s count of hunger strikers,” he said in a statement. “Aside from the religious aspect, the fact that the military doesn’t count a man as a hunger striker doesn’t mean the man is not a hunger striker. It means the man doesn’t meet the military’s definition of a hunger strike.”
The military said quitting the hunger strike entails the sustained eating of solid food and caloric intake over several days. Military officials did not respond to Vocativ’s request to list the kinds of foods those leaving the hunger strike ate.
Stafford Smith said Aamer told him detainees are also being threatened if they continue to strike. “[Prison officials] are saying prisoners will be punished by being held in isolation through Ramadan if they don’t eat. They said this directly to Ahmed Belbacha, too.”
Belbacha, an Algerian national, has been in Gitmo for more than a decade. He was cleared for release in 2007 after it was ruled that he had no links to terror networks or any pertinent information to offer counter-terrorism officials. He’s still awaiting his freedom.
Until their cases are heard or the prison is closed, detainees have no intention of abandoning the hunger strike, said Stafford Smith. “Nobody could imagine that all the prisoners could keep this up forever. There will be some who will, though,” he said, adding that he has undertaken a hunger strike of his own.
“I have done five days without a crumb of food, which is trivial compared to the detainees,” Stafford Smith said. “But I and many others wish to show support for their valid complaints and, to the extent [we] wish, adopt the hunger strikes of those who cannot continue in Guantánamo.”