Interview with Andy Worthington
For almost two months now, prisoners at the U.S.’s Guantánamo torture center have been on a hunger strike. Lawyers for some of the prisoners reported that the strike began because of “unprecedented searches and a new guard force.” In particular, prisoners were angry and anguished at the way the guards handled the prisoners’ Korans.
There are currently 166 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo, over half of whom have been cleared for release for years. Of the 130 prisoners in Camp 6, there are reports from the prisoners through their lawyers that almost all are refusing food. Eleven prisoners are being force-fed by their captors, which meansthat a prisoner is shackled into a restraint chair with a feeding tube snaked up his nose and into his stomach.Attorneys report that some men have lost 20-30 pounds and that at least two dozen have lost consciousness. It is a very urgent situation. Many of the prisoners have passed the 40th day: According to medical experts, irreversible mental and physiological damage such as hearing loss, blindness, and hemorrhaging can occur after this point.
In a statement provided by a military defense lawyer, Fayiz al-Kandari, a prisoner from Kuwait, said, “Let them kill us, as we have nothing to lose. We died when Obama indefinitely detained us. Respect us or kill us, it’s your choice. The United States must take off its mask and kill us.”
Guantánamo Bay—a U.S. military fortress on Cuba—was turned into a prison camp of the U.S.’ “war on terror” in January 2002 by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. One of the main reasons the Bush administration established the prison at Guantánamo was because they considered it “outside U.S. legal jurisdiction”—meaning that the laws and rights supposedly guaranteed to prisoners, including “prisoners of war,” would not apply. Since then almost 800 men have been imprisoned at Guantánamo, and the word Guantánamo has become synonymous with torture, unjust detention, brutality, and inhumane degradation.
Andy Worthington, an investigative journalist based in London, recently wrote that many of the prisoners think that “a hunger strike is the only way to try and draw attention to their plight.” For the past six years, Worthington has been relentless in exposing the U.S. atrocities at its Guantánamo prison camp: the endless rounds of torture; the degradation and psychological torment; the body- and spirit-crushing imprisonment, including solitary confinement; the “rendition” (turning over prisoners captured and held by U.S. military and spy agencies to other countries where they can be tortured out of sight under U.S. direction).
He has exposed the twisted legal arguments the U.S. government has used to justify its outrageously inhumane treatment of people it labels “enemy combatants,” and the ways different branches of the U.S. government, and both the Democratic and the Republican parties have extended, deepened, and consolidated these monstrous policies since their initiation in the administration of George W. Bush.
Worthington’s articles can be found at his website, andyworthington.co.uk; his book The Guantánamo Diaries can be found at Amazon and at many bookstores, including Revolution Books. He is also the co-director of the film Outside the Law: Stories From Guantánamo.
The following Revolution interview with Andy Worthington was done on March 28, 2013.
Revolution: What are the essential facts of the hunger strike under way now at Guantánamo; how many people are striking, how long has it been going on, and what can you tell us that you know about what set it off at this point?
Andy Worthington: What I understand is that the hunger strike began nearly two months ago, so in the first week of February, and that what particularly precipitated it was a change in the way that the personnel at Guantánamo were behaving toward the prisoners. So there were very aggressive cell searches, there was the seizure of personal items including privileged correspondence between the prisoners and their lawyers, and there was also what was regarded as abusive treatment of their copies of the Koran.
So last week I was actually doing an event with a former prisoner, who’s a friend of mine. He said there’s always something within the prison that particularly provokes a hunger strike, and that generally it does involve religious mistreatment, although I think sometimes in the past it had involved sexual abuse of prisoners. So what we’ve got here this time around is a change in the behavior of the guard force, to what the prisoners are saying reminds them of the bad old days at Guantánamo. And of course, combined with that is the despair that prisoners feel at having been held for over 11 years in most cases under the leadership of a president who promised to close the prison on his second day in office and has failed to do so, and has now shown almost no interest in even addressing the problem of Guantánamo.
So these men very fundamentally feel abandoned by the president of the United States in a way that they did not even feel so abandoned under President Bush after the terrible, terrible first term when it really was a committed program of torture and abuse and renditions. President Bush faced a lot of international criticism in his second term, and actually part of what that led to was a pretty big program of prisoner releases, whereas the prisoner releases under Obama have almost ground to a halt. The last seven prisoners who have left the prison in the last two years, well, four of them were released, but three of them were dead, three of them left in coffins.
So that’s the tally over the last two years. And the men are understandably in despair. Well, you can see from those odds, over the last two years, the chances of you leaving Guantánamo are almost nil; if you are one of those people who’s going to leave, you have a 43% chance of being dead when you get to leave. So it’s a shocking situation.
So with both the bigger picture and the more everyday picture of what’s happening at Guantánamo, these are the reasons that the men are so upset and so despairing. My understanding from what the prisoners have been saying is that the majority of the prisoners in Camp 6 are on a hunger strike. Now there are 166 men left at Guantánamo; 130 of those men are in Camp 6 (this is the last of the camps to be built for the general population at Guantánamo, where the majority of the prisoners are held), and the attorneys have heard from the prisoners that the majority of those men are on a hunger strike.
The last I saw, this week the U.S. government was acknowledging that 31 men were on a hunger strike, but just two weeks ago they were saying that no one was on a hunger strike apart from five or six long-term hunger strikers; and those figures have gradually been creeping up. And I would say those figures have gradually been creeping up because the government, the administration, the military, were forced into a position of having to acknowledge a hunger strike because their attempts to pretend that there wasn’t one weren’t being believed. And various parts of the media started to take an interest in the story, started to report it, at which point I think it became apparent that blanket denial wasn’t going to work any longer.
Revolution:It does seem like the government’s been disputing every basic fact about the strike since it’s begun, including the number of people and the condition of the strikers, which for some, as you’ve just noted, has been going on for quite a while. What is the condition of the people who’ve been on strike all this time? It seems like it must be extremely desperate and dire.
Worthington: Well, let’s look at it this way: there are the five or six long-term hunger strikers, and I know that one of these guys has been on a hunger strike since 2005. I can’t imagine how he’s still alive, frankly. Just the punishment for his body of twice a day being strapped to a chair and having a tube put up his nose and into his stomach, for nearly eight years; that’s horrendous. I can’t really get my head around that at all. I don’t know how long the other long-term hunger strikers have been on a hunger strike but it’s obviously going to be a matter of years in their cases as well.
As for the guys who started their hunger strike seven weeks ago, the stories that came out via the lawyers are that we’re looking at prisoners losing between 20 and 30 pounds of their body weight. With the exception of a few obese prisoners that there are at Guantánamo, and a few well-fed prisoners, I would say that the thing to remember about Guantánamo is that the normal status of the average prisoner is not somebody who’s carrying a lot of extra weight by any means.
My feeling is that the average weight in Guantánamo would probably be more accurately put at something like 120 to 140 pounds. We’ve seen prisoners slip to the horribly dangerous point where they’re weighing 100 pounds or less. I’ve tried to imagine grown men weighing just 100 pounds and trying to think if I can see that anywhere in everyday life, and of course you can’t really see that in everyday life, it would be somebody who’s dangerously ill or anorexic. It’s a horrible predicament. As experts have been saying this week, once you reach the six- or seven-week period of hunger striking, that’s when people on a hunger strike are seriously at risk of death or serious organ damage.
Revolution:Could you tell us a little bit about this category and concept of indefinite detention that the U.S. has been using to hold men seemingly for life without any justification in either U.S. or international law and which I’m sure must be the source of a lot of the despair you spoke of among the prisoners themselves? What is the legal status of the people there?
Worthington: It’s a good question really because I don’t think this is something that is known enough within the United States. These are not conventional prisoners. These are not people who to my mind are legally held, although the underpinning of their detention is the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress passed the week after the 9/11 attacks, and which authorized the president to go after anyone that he felt was associated with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, 9/11. The Supreme Court in 2004 in a ruling confirmed that the president had the authority to detain these people until the end of hostilities, and that’s the very thin legal underpinning for holding these men. It turns out that no one’s been able to challenge the AUMF, no one’s been able to challenge the definition of how long these hostilities last for, because nobody’s letting those things be discussed. So what we have are men who have been deprived of their liberty, who possibly could be held for the whole of their lives, and who haven’t really been given any opportunity to challenge the basis of their detention.
Now the administration would say they have; these are men who secured habeas corpus rights through a decision made by the Supreme Court. And that is true, in the sense that they got habeas corpus rights in 2004, Congress took them away, the Supreme Court gave them back in 2008. Now for two years, admittedly, from when the Supreme Court made that decision, over three dozen of the prisoners at Guantánamo had their habeas corpus petitions granted in the District Court in Washington, DC, which was adjudicating their cases; a majority of those men were released.
So over two dozen of those men were released as a result of court orders for their release. And then what happened was that ideologically motivated, conservative judges in the court of appeals, the DC Circuit Court, decided that they couldn’t stand the lower court actually telling the government that their evidence was worthless and ordering the release of prisoners from Guantánamo. So they changed the rules. They said the court has to believe everything the government says, has to behave as though that is the truth, unless the prisoners and their attorneys can prove otherwise. What the evidence consists of in so many cases is battlefield reports that shouldn’t really be trusted as facts, and a whole array of interrogation reports that are not trustworthy, because the circumstances under which the prisoners were interrogated left a lot to be desired. So they then made sure that the legal avenue for leaving Guantánamo has been completely shut off. Since they made these changes to the rules, not a single prisoner has won a habeas corpus petition.
And in fact, a number of successful decisions were appealed; they also were overturned. The judges in the DC Circuit Court have gutted habeas corpus of all meaning for the Guantánamo prisoners, and for two years in a row, the Supreme Court has been given the option to tell the DC Circuit Court that they want to be responsible for the conditions of detention and the rules that apply—and they have failed to do so.
So there is no legal avenue out of Guantánamo. It would be unfair for anybody to say that the prisoners have any kind of rights, because those rights have been completely done away with by the DC Circuit Court. So they’re kind of back to square one. There’s no way out for them, unless the President decides to do something. What we’ve seen over the last few years is a lack of action on President Obama’s part, and then we’ve seen I think a politically motivated and very cynical decision in Congress to impose restrictions on who the president can release. We’ve had a ban from President Obama on releasing any cleared Yemeni prisoners, as a result of the failed underwear bomb plot in December 2009, which originated in Yemen, and there are 86 cleared prisoners who were approved for transfer out of Guantánamo by the task force that President Obama set up in his first year in office—the interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force—and two-thirds of those men are Yemeni. So the president himself has imposed a ban on releasing prisoners that his own advisors told him the United States didn’t want to hold any longer. Every avenue has been closed.
For many years now, every few months there will be pretrial hearings, in the cases primarily of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men who are accused of masterminding and being involved in the 9/11 attacks; this was the trial that was supposed to take place in federal court, but the Obama administration backed down when criticized, and moved the planned trial back to Guantánamo. Now the military commissions, their history is really not a very good one. It was driven by Dick Cheney bringing them back from oblivion at the start of the war on terror. The Supreme Court kicked them out as illegal in 2006, and Congress then brought them back to life twice, once under Bush and again under Obama.
Two things plague them really. A lot of the things they were set up to try aren’t actual war crimes; they were only invented as war crimes by Congress, so they’ve run into problems on that front. The military commissions are also plagued with obsessive secrecy on the part of the authorities because the men being tried there, particularly in this high-profile trial, the 9/11 trial, they were specifically the victims of the torture program that was initiated by the Bush administration involving secret prisons and torture, all of which is desperately illegal, however much Justice Department lawyer and Berkeley law professor John Yoo wrote the memos telling them that it was OK. The authorities or various parts of the establishment are absolutely obsessed with making sure that nothing about what happened to these men comes out in court. I don’t know how they intend to have a trial with any kind of fairness when they’re trying to make sure that a lot of the important things are never, ever talked about.
But I honestly don’t know how this could possibly end happily because the problem is that one of the Obama administration’s biggest roles on national security has been to defend anyone connected with the Bush administration from any investigation about their involvement with torture and rendition and all of these horrible and illegal things that took place. I don’t how you can try people who have been tortured without somehow acknowledging that. But this is going to go on for years and years.
There’s not going to be any easy resolution to it. But the obvious thing about the commissions whenever you look at them is that they persistently run into these dark farcical operational problems. It used to happen all the time under Bush as well and now it’s happening under Obama, a broken system that doesn’t work and that constantly throws up things that are just embarrassing, like the hidden spy in the recent hearing, who even the judge didn’t know about.
Revolution: As you said, Obama in many ways is actually worse than Bush in what he’s done in not only defending these people that you referred to, but I would say, extending and consolidating the policies that were initiated in the Bush years. One of the things that seems to have happened recently in an attempt to cut these strikers off from the outside world, is the shutting off of flights to Guantánamo that effectively prevents, at least it makes it very difficult for their lawyers to see them, on a regular basis, and at the same time, Congress has actually voted funding an expansion of Guantánamo.
Worthington: Well, overall I would just say briefly that Obama has resisted all efforts to send new prisoners to Guantánamo, and there is also not much suggestion that he has a global network of torture prisons like the Bush administration did, although certainly there are very dubious things happening in a few places. But primarily his biggest crimes, I think, are the drone program, which clearly is immoral and illegal but the United States doesn’t want to aknowledge that, and his obsessive defense of the crimes committed by the Bush administration.
So at Guantánamo his biggest crime, as well as not releasing cleared prisoners, has been that, through an executive order two years ago, he designated 46 of them—48 of them actually, but two died—for indefinite detention on the basis that they were regarded as too dangerous to release, but that there wasn’t enough evidence to put them on trial. That means that there are fundamental problems with the purported evidence. And so he actually is responsible, personally, for having said that the United States will continue to imprison indefinitely, as a matter of policy, 46 men at Guantánamo. Now it happens that through his inaction and through the obstructions raised by Congress, everyone is effectively indefinitely detained at Guantánamo. That’s the really shocking thing about clearing people for release and then not releasing them. Why bother? What message does that send to the people that you told were going home, that actually the truth is, well, you’re not going home. That’s a horrible, horrible thing to do.
This interview originally appeared on revcom.us in the April 7, 2013 issue.