What You Need To Know About The Guantanamo Hunger Strikes

A searing op-ed in the New York Times on Monday broke open the floodgates of public interest in the remaining detainees at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention center. Combined with news of a violent clash between the guards and the detainees on Saturday, Guantanamo is in the spotlight like it hasn’t been in years. Here’s what you need to know:

Who is left in Guantanamo?

Despite pledges to close Guantanamo Bay’s detention facilities in his first year in office, the base still remains quite open and recently received a new commanding officer. Human Rights First has a look at the numbers of who remains in Gitmo, including those who have been approved for release but still remain behind bars:

  • Detainees currently held at Guantánamo: 166.
  • Remaining detainees approved for release: 86.
  • Detainees convicted by military commission before 2009 and still held at Guantánamo: 1
  • Detainees Obama Administration designated for trial or commission including those tried since January 2009: 36.
  • Detainees Obama Administration has designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial: 46.

Of those remaining, the U.S. military says that 42 detainees are currently on a hunger strike under military guidelines, which includes nine missed consecutive meals, with 11 force-fed via nasal tube to keep them alive.

Is this the first hunger strike in Guantanamo?

No, this is not the first time detainees have launched hunger strikes to protest mistreatment. A similar case occurred in 2005, when as many as 200 detainees refused food and water while maintaining their innocence and protesting their handling while in detention. Another such case took place in 2007 and yet another in 2010. Each of those incidents also included detainees’ force-feeding through nasal tubes.

Why are the detainees striking this time and for how long?

The strike goes back to early February, launched against guards at Guantanamo searching for weapons hidden in detainees’ copies of the Quran. Word spread among detainees that these searches involved possible mistreating of the Quran, leading them to forgo meals in protest.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense William K. Lietzau wrote in a letter in response to the Center for Constitutional Rights’ inquiries about the searches, denying that any mishandling had occurred. In his letter, Lietzau insisted that incidents have occurred with detainees “storing contraband in their Qurans; items found have included improvised weapons, unauthorized food and medicine” and other other items deemed able to harm themselves, other detainees, or Gitmo personnel.

At present, no data has been provided to the media regarding confiscated contraband supposedly hidden within the searched Qurans. Defense lawyers also insist that their clients would not hide weapons within their own holy books, as that would itself be desecration. There is also no sign that the hunger strike will voluntarily end in the near future.

What’s the story behind this weekend’s violence?

The clash this weekend began following the decision to move the hunger-strikers currently being force-fed into single-cell, rather than communal, facilities. According a media statement from U.S. Southern Command on the incident, the decision was not well met among detainees:

In order to reestablish proper observation, the guards entered the Camp VI communal living spaces to transition detainees into single cells, remove obstructions to cameras, windows and partitions, and medical personnel conducted individual assessments of each detainee. The ongoing hunger strike necessitated these medical assessments. Some detainees resisted with improvised weapons, and in response, four less-than-lethal rounds were fired. There were no serious injuries to guards or detainees.

The “weapons” wielded included “batons, broomsticks, and plastic water bottles” precisely how many detainees and guards were injured has yet to be provided to the media.

Why is Guantanamo still open?

Despite President Obama signing an Executive Order in 2009 to have Gitmo closed within a year, several Congressional acts have prevented the transfer of detainees from the Cuban base to the United States. In light of accusations of torture, however, the Central Intelligence Agency lost its ability to hold and interrogate suspects in detention centers around the world, also stemming the flow of new detainees into Guantanamo.

The result has been a broken detention policy, seen in a sharp fall-off in the number of captured foreign fighters and a sharp increase in the use of armed drones to kill suspected terrorists. The Obama administration has recently warily begun to send suspected terrorists to civilian courts, rather than trying them in military tribunals in Guantanamo, but Republicans have heavily derided even this small step towards reforming detention policy.