On February 6, a number of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison started a hunger strike after guards there allegedly searched their Qurans, an act the detainees viewed as mistreating Islam’s holy book and saw as violating a long-standing agreement with authorities at Gitmo. But now the hunger strike is 100 days old with no end in sight. Dozens more prisoners have joined the protest (102 of the 166 detainees by the military’s count, but detainee lawyers say the number is closer to 130) and the military says 30 hunger strikers are being force-fed, mostly against their will.
While the hunger strike has had the benefit of sparking wider media attention to the detainees’ predicament and renewing interest in closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, particularly from President Obama, the situation in and of itself is looking more like a lose-lose proposition for all sides involved: a public relations disaster for the U.S. military and the Obama administration and, for the detainees, many of whom have been cleared for release, malnutrition, the possibility of being force-fed — which experts and rights groups say violates international law and could be viewed as torture — or perhaps even death.
Ultimately, the problems at Guantanamo Bay won’t end until the prison is closed. But lawyers for hunger striking detainees have said that, at the very least, there are seemingly non-complicated ways to end this hunger strike. Listed below are some ways, they said, to achieve that result. And indeed, one possible prescription for beginning to end the hunger strike could also serve as one step in the process of closing the Gitmo prison all together:
1. Begin A Dialogue With The Detainees And Detainee Lawyers.
Gitmo authorities appear to have taken a more forceful approach to trying to end the hunger strike. A Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay Standard Operation Procedure for medical management of detainees on hunger strike obtained by Al-Jazeera says “in the event of a mass strike, isolating hunger striking patients from each other is vital to prevent them from achieving solidarity.”
“The military is under a command now that is determined not to compromise — determined not to blink first, so to speak, and it’s not going to do anything about the men’s demands, not even talk to them until the men break their hunger strike,” David Remes, a lawyer representing some detainees on hunger strike, said last week on CBC’s As It Happens.
U.S. Army Captain Jason Wright, a Pentagon lawyer representing Gitmo detainees, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, said that approach is making the situation worse and that those in command so far refuse to work for a negotiated settlement. “They can engage in a constructive dialogue with the detainees and the lawyers for the detainees about how to end the hunger strike,” he said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “That hasn’t happened.”
Remes said dialogue has proved successful to mitigate previous hunger strikes. Before the new command took over last summer, he says, “whenever there was an issue of importance to the men, the detention operations people would sit down with them and work out some kind of solution that satisfied everybody.” But now, he added, the new command is “determined to show who’s boss … by doing things that provoke the men.”
Wright added, “We have reached out to the administration and to the camp administration and they are not interested in speaking with us.”
2. Deal With The Quran Issue.
Detainee lawyers said that Gitmo command could reduce those on hunger strike by either ending the practice of searching detainee Qurans or, alternatively, allowing the detainees to give them up. Detainee lawyer Carlos Warner explained in an interview with ThinkProgress:
WARNER: [Detainees could] voluntary surrender them. The first time this happened was in 2006 during that hunger strike which was pretty massive in its own right, I think 140 people reported by the military, and that strike was sparked because of these alleged suicides and a Quran search. And the accommodation that was made was that the military agreed to allow the men by their own volition to voluntarily surrender the Qurans to them. And they could obviously ask for them back at any point but the men would rather provide the Quran than have it searched by the military in the manner that it was being searched.
“They hadn’t searched the Qurans in this manner in four or five years,” Warner added, “They started searching it again in the same way they did in 2006 and the demand was, again, allow us to voluntarily surrender the Qurans. So I took this to the military and I said this is the demand that you have to resolve the strike and they said, ‘we would never ever do this.’”
3. Start Releasing Detainees.
“What I know from talking to the people down there,” Carol Rosenberg, a Miami Herald reporter covering Guantanamo, said on NPR earlier this month, is the hunger strikers “need somebody to leave, for the prisoners to regain the hope of the possibility of departure. And that could be — I’m not saying it will be — but it could be the mechanism that ends this hunger strike.”
In his interview with ThinkProgress, Wright agreed. “I think a more strategic way to end the hunger strike could possibly be for the administration to take immediate steps to start releasing some of the detainees,” he said, “I think that would bring an added element of hope to their plight.”
Warner said that while some hunger strikers will still hold out because they may be concerned about different issues, he added that “they ultimately could be resolved too in pretty short order just by starting to release the men.”
But how? CAP expert Ken Gude recently explained. “The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act made important changes to previous restrictions granting the Secretary of Defense more discretion in making determinations to transfer Guantanamo detainees,” Gude says, adding: “President Obama should instruct Secretary of Defense Hagel to use that authority.”
Who should the U.S. release? “Of the 86 prisoners approved by a presidential task force four years ago for transfer out of Gitmo,” the Los Angeles Times reported on Friday, “59 are Yemenis — and their new government wants them back.”
“I am more optimistic this time around, because he’s no longer naive about the politics,” David Cole, a professor of constitutional law and national security at Georgetown, told the Daily Beast in a piece published this week. “He’s lived through four years of stalemate on this, so the fact that he was nonetheless as strong and passionate about his concerns suggests to me that he really has made a renewed commitment to take it on.”
Indeed, and by exercising his authority to transfer detainees cleared for release, particularly the Yemenis, the President could help end the hunger strike and begin the long process of finally closing Gitmo for good.