Gitmo detainees began their hunger strike on Feb. 6 to protest what they said was the guards’ mistreatment of their Qurans. On March 18, the military said 21 detainees were on hunger strike and 8 of those were receiving “enteral feeds,” also known as being force-fed or tube-fed. On Thursday, Gitmo officials say a record high of 36 hunger strikers are being force-fed and 103 detainees are refusing food in what has grown into a mass protest against their general plight and indefinite detention at the world’s most expensive prison.
The Gitmo hunger strike gained widespread attention after the New York Times published an op-ed last month by a detainee who described the harrowing process of being force-fed — which involves medical staff inserting a tube through the nose, down the esophagus and into the stomach. “I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed,” the detainee wrote in the Times. Another detainee has reportedly said it feels like a razor blade being pulled down your throat while another called the force-feeding process “agony.”
However, one issue surrounding the Gitmo hunger strike that has received little attention is just how big it is, and the military’s willingness, or lack thereof, to disclose the true nature of the protest. While it’s not only unclear how many Gitmo detainees are actually participating in the hunger strike, there’s also uncertainty about how many hunger strikers are being force-fed, and indeed, about what the military means when it says a hunger striker is being force-fed.
Detainee lawyers have said that for public relations reasons, Gitmo authorities have throughout the hunger strike sought to find ways to minimize the numbers of those refusing food. “The military kept denying that it was a hunger strike as long as it could and then it had to begin admitting — and it did this slowly — that there was a hunger strike,” Gitmo detainee lawyer David Remes told ThinkProgress. Remes and other lawyers believe the number of detainees on hunger strike is closer to 130. But, Remes adds, “Our numbers are now so close that it really doesn’t matter.”
What hasn’t been discussed in greater detail, however, is the possibility that the military is also trying to downplay the number of those hunger strikers being force-fed. Carlos Warner, another lawyer representing Guantanamo detainees, told ThinkProgress that he believes a “majority” of hunger strikers are being force-fed. “Just looking at the SOP you know that some men are coming off the [force-feed] list and some are going back on,” Warner said, referring to the Gitmo hunger strike Standard Operating Procedure Al-Jazeera recently published. “They’re all being rotated in and out … and for me that indicates likely a majority of these men, since they’re not eating, and since they’re not dying, are likely being force-fed.”
Guantanamo Bay spokesman Lt. Col. Samuel House disputed that charge. “Once the detainee is approved for enteral feeding, he stays on that list until he meets criteria to come off of the list. We have not had anyone come off the list of approved enteral feeders,” House said, adding that detainees on hunger strike are offered “a choice to eat a hot meal, drink liquid nutrient prescribed by a health care provider, or be enteral fed.”
Remes says that this choice essentially amounts to force-feeding. “For example, if I have a client that is brought into the room with a restraint chair and he is sat down at a table with a dish of honey in front of him and they tell him, ‘Drink this honey or else you’re going straight into that chair.’ Is that force feeding? Of course it is,” Remes said, adding that “to call [tube feeding] enteral feeding is to miss the point, in that it’s involuntary.”
When asked to provide names of those on the so-called “enteral feed” list (the Miami Herald has identified some of them), Lt. Col. House refused, citing Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. “This includes protecting them from curiosity,” he said. “By identifying them on a list makes them a ‘public spectacle.'”
But isn’t this precisely what the hunger strikers want, for their situation to be publicized? “I would say that every single detainee would welcome public disclosure of the fact that he is being force fed,” Remes said. “The Pentagon’s refusal to make the information public is really a result of its own fear of being made into a spectacle.”
Warner similarly dismissed House’s reasoning. “The detainees uniformly object to force feeding. Some choose to drink the formula instead of being violently fed,” he said. “Citing the Geneva Conventions in Guantanamo for the benefit of the military is the height of hypocrisy. The international community, including the United Nations, unanimously agree that the Conventions are being violated daily in Guantanamo.”
Army Capt. Jason Wright, another detainee lawyer, said that while the public curiosity provision of the Geneva Convention bars releasing the names of those prisoners being force fed, “it is unfortunately ironic that the U.S. military hides behind a generous reading [of that provision] when it releases images from Guantanamo Bay when it suits their interests.”
Wright added that “this same provision of the Geneva Convention requires the Detaining Power to protect prisoners against acts of violence and insults. The world has condemned the practice of force-feeding, and it is nothing short of violent and insulting.”
While it’s unclear whether there will ever be a real answers to the questions of how many are on hunger strike and being force-fed, lawyers for the detainees say Gitmo authorities can implement any one of a few simple policies that will ultimately end the hunger strike. “I think the hunger strike would end in two days if the commander of the joint detention group, Col. John Bogdan, agreed not to search the Qurans,” Remes said.
Wright suggested a broader approach in a recent interview with ThinkProgress. “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.”
Obama did announce in his major speech on counterrorism last week that he has lifted the ban on transferring detainees to Yemen and that he would be appointing a new special envoy on closing Guantanamo.
Remes is skeptical that the announcement will have any effect on the detainees decision to end their hunger strike. “Obama has zero credibility with the detainees,” he said. “I’m sure they know … he said he was lifting the ban — that was the big news [in the U.S.]. But they probably said, ‘Big deal, that doesn’t mean he’s going to transfer us … we’ll see it when we see it and we probably won’t see it.'”