Dozens of men held indefinitely at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay are on a hunger strike, a non-violent form of resistance to injustice used famously by Mahatma Ghandi in the fight for Indian independence and Bobby Sands in opposing British rule over Northern Ireland. Now, the United States is the target of a hunger strike by an unknown number of men who have refused food since February 6, 2013, at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in a desperate attempt to win their release.
At least three have lost consciousness. Reliable information about their number and condition is hard to come by, however, since the US military has canceled all flights that normally take journalists and the detainees’ lawyers to the facility.
All of the men on hunger strike were cleared for release more than three years ago by the same US authorities that are holding them captive. And yet there is no end in sight to their indefinite detention, a condition the United Nations classifies as torture. The Obama administration’s response has been to institute forced feedings and shut down access to the men. Now, there are reports that even potable water has been cut to at least some cell blocks.
Some Chicagoans are mobilizing to support the hunger strikers’ demand to be released and call for shutting down Guantanamo. “There is a real possibility that Obama will preside over Guantanamo’s transformation into a death camp,” warned Jill McLaughlin, an activist with World Can’t Wait Chicago and a member of that organization’s national steering committee.
Late last month, Witness Against Torture Chicago held a vigil just yards away from Pres. Obama’s Hyde Park home, demanding that the men who have been cleared for release by the US be set free. Jerica Arents, who is active with Witness Against Torture and teaches at DePaul University, said that, as a person of faith in this Easter Season, “I feel compelled to speak out against injustices perpetrated on my brothers and sisters. The last and only option for the men at Guantanamo is to hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention.”
Patricia A. Bronte is a Chicago attorney who has represented detainees since 2005 and visited Guantanamo many times. She said that at least one of her clients has been on hunger strike for 47 days but she is unable to speak with her other client so she can’t confirm that he is striking. She has been told, however, that all but two elderly prisoners are participating in the hunger strike. Following are her responses to questions about the situation in Guantanamo.
Morale among the men at Guantanamo is reportedly at the lowest point ever. Why do you think that is the case?
“The Guantánamo prisoners feel betrayed by President Obama’s dismal failure to honor his promises – to close Guantánamo, to release those who have been determined to pose no threat to the U.S., and to treat them humanely. Indefinite detention is one of the most serious human rights violations, one that the United States has repeatedly criticized other countries for committing. Now the United States itself is the world’s biggest perpetrator of this abuse. These men have been imprisoned for 11+ years and have lost all hope. As my client said, “If I am a criminal, try me and sentence me. If I’m not a criminal, set me free. I have lost everything. My mother and father died while I’ve been here. Not even China, Russia, and Iran treat people so cruelly. They are killing us slowly, in cold blood.” The recent incidents of searches of the men’s Qur’ans is just the latest outrage, and the men responded in the only way left to them: by refusing to eat food supplied by those who wrongly imprison them. I just learned this morning that the prison administration has begun denying potable water to certain cell blocks, which can only hasten the deteriorating health of the hunger strikers.”
What impact do vigils and protests in Chicago have on this situation?
“The Guantánamo prisoners rightly feel abandoned to indefinite detention, and they know that the Department of Defense has been trying to downplay the hunger strike. So it is vitally important for American citizens to make clear that we firmly disagree with the actions our government is taking in our name. Although our numbers are small, the word is gradually becoming known to the public at large. I believe if more Americans were aware of what is happening right now at Guantánamo, they would share my outrage and frustration – and make themselves heard by our government. The prisoners are heartened to know that they have not simply been forgotten.”
People often say there’s nothing Obama can do to shut down Guantanamo and free the men who’ve been cleared because Congress is blocking him. Is that true?
“Absolutely not. The National Defense Authorization Act permits the President to release these men through the national security waiver provisions of the Act. The requirements of these waivers for the 86 cleared men were almost entirely satisfied more than 3 years ago, when the nation’s top military, intelligence, diplomatic, and legal experts unanimously approved the 86 men for transfer out of the prison. Adnan Latif, who died last September, spent the last 11 years of his life imprisoned, far from his family and his homeland, despite having been approved for release. Let’s hope our government will step in to prevent any more tragedies like this one.”
Jay Becker is an activist from the Chicago chapter of “World Can’t Wait,” a national anti-war group.This article originally appeared on chicagotalks.org on April 3, 2013.