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"Look to Guantánamo Before It Is Too Late"

Zachary Katznelson,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU National Security Project
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April 17, 2013

The ongoing crisis in the prison at Guantánamo Bay is escalating, and new details are emerging as media have been allowed to visit this week. A few days ago, as part of an operation to shift hunger-striking prisoners from communal living to individual cells, Guantánamo guards shot at prisoners using what the military calls “less-than-lethal” ammunition, hitting at least one person. The AP reports that five prisoners were injured, as prisoners apparently resisted.

The hunger strike was initially sparked by the perceived defilement of the Qur’an, but its roots are much deeper: it is a protest against indefinite detention without charge or trial, including for men who long ago were cleared unanimously for release by U.S. security agencies. As explained by Guantánamo prisoner Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel in the New York Times, the prisoners feel they have little choice but to protest, even at grave risk to their health:

…there is no end in sight to our imprisonment. Denying ourselves food and risking death every day is the choice we have made.

I just hope that because of the pain we are suffering, the eyes of the world will once again look to Guantánamo before it is too late.

According to Naji, the force-feeding the men endure, which is cruel, inhuman and degrading and violates international medical ethics, is excruciating:

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.

The government has acknowledged 15 prisoners are being force fed and that 52 out of the 166 prisoners are on hunger strike, though lawyers for the prisoners report much higher numbers. The experience of prisoner Shaker Aamer, a British resident, seems typical of those who are protesting. Aamer reports he has lost over 30 pounds, is constantly weak, and concerned for his life: “I can’t read. I am dizzy and I fall down all the time.”

In a briefing to journalists at Guantanamo yesterday, military officials said two prisoners attempted suicide this past weekend. A third hunger-striking prisoner reportedly tried to kill himself in March. The situation is so dire that following its recent trip to Guantanamo, the Red Cross has publicly called for President Obama to take immediate political action on Guantánamo.

On Monday, Judge Thomas Hogan of the Federal D.C. District Court held that he lacked jurisdiction to intervene in a challenge to the treatment of one of the hunger strikers, Musa’ab Al-Madhwani. Judge Hogan ruled that due to Congressional restrictions, he had no power to address “conditions of confinement” in Guantánamo. Judge Hogan did state that should a prisoner’s life be in danger and the government denies him adequate medical care, the court might be able to step in to protect the prisoner’s ability to exercise his constitutional right to habeas corpus. Al-Madhwani’s lawyer Darold Kilmer stated afterwards that the judge’s refusal meant Guantánamo is “a prison without accountability to anyone right now.”

Last week, we joined a coalition of human rights groups urging President Obama to take immediate action to end the injustices occurring in Guantanamo. There is still time for him to do so, before the situation gets even worse.

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