As the world questions why Guantanamo Bay still fails to be shut down, Liam Forbes discusses the recent hunger strikers attempt to reignite the injustice in the lawless U.S naval base.
On the 11th of October, a short animation was released on the Guardian website that detailed the treatment of prisoners staging a hunger strike in Guantánamo Bay that had been ongoing since February. The prisoners’ decision to go on strike was allegedly in response to guards seizing legal documents, family photos, and other personal belongings during cell searches in February. Security personnel were also accused of mishandling Korans, a claim denied by military authorities.
Based on the testimony of five current inmates, four of whom are still held despite being cleared for release in 2007, the video graphically depicts the psychological intimidation and forced feeding of detainees. Initially denying that an organised hunger strike had ever been taking place, military authorities have since admitted that around one hundred inmates were originally involved, a figure raised to 130 by several detainees.
Representing seventeen prisoners who are currently being held without charge, human rights lawyer David Remes has described prisoner’s horrific treatment such as having nasal tubes that are akin to “having a razor blade go down through your nose, and into your throat,” in order to force feed the strikers. Security forces in the detention centre are also allegedly using tubes with a wider circumference than necessary to cause extra pain. “They’ve been held for twelve years, without being accused of any real crime, separated from their families and homes. They have no end in sight. They don’t want to live out the rest of their lives there,” argues Remes.
Nonetheless, controversial practices by the U.S in Guantanamo Bay are not a new story. Opened in January 2002, Guantánamo Bay was established by the Bush administration as an extension of an already existing naval base on the south-eastern end of Cuba. Under the 1903 agreement with the Cuban government, the United States was given complete control and jurisdiction of the area, while paradoxically agreeing to recognise Cuba’s ultimate sovereignty over the bay. This jurisdiction limbo is what allows the U.S to hold
prisoners without warrant or trial in a location that permits them to act outside U.S law and International law. Human rights organisation Amnesty International have campaigned for the closure of the detention centre due to its “gross evasion of human rights” and use of torture and intimidation methods such as using stress positions, sensory deprivation, prolonged isolation, the use of 20-hour interrogations, hooding during transportation and interrogation, stripping, forcible shaving, and “using detainees individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress.”
These methods used by the centre have been attempted to be justified by the U.S Government. Force feeding is regarded by the UN Human Rights Commission as a form of torture, and was condemned by the World Medical Association in 1975. Similar to Guardian video producer Guy Grandjean’s animation, in July of this year actor, rapper, and activist Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) allowed himself to be force fed using the same methods in a video by UK based human rights group Reprieve, in order to help raise awareness. Naval medics based in Guantánamo have insisted that the procedure is not nearly as painful as he makes it out to be in the video. In any case, both Grandjean and Def’s productions are examples of the power of online media in rallying members of the public towards a cause.
On the 22nd of January 2009, two days after being sworn into office, President Obama suspended any military tribunals of detainees for 120 days. An executive order was then issued pledging to shut down the controversial detention centre. Since then, Obama and his administration have made a u turn on their stance against the detention centre and the area is still facilitating the unlawful detention of prisoners and suspected torture. Obstacles to the closure of the site included the objection of several new administration officials, who argued that there was not enough information filed on several prisoners to warrant whether or not they could be transferred to a prison within the United States. Guantanamo’s location outside of American jurisdiction has allowed them to detain possible terrorist threats with the U.S legal procedure of a fair trial and evidence before prolonged detention. The lack of information filed on prisoners that have been held for many years in the detention centre is the reason many cannot be transferred to U.S prison. To transfer these inmates would be to adhere to the U.S legal system. Possibilities of these prisoners being allowed to leave detention is a risk the U.S is not willing to take. Plans to move the prisoners to a jail in Illinois after it was brought under federal ownership were also soon scrapped that year.
In 2011, despite strong personal objections, Obama signed the Defense Authorization Bill for the year into law. The order contains clauses that both prohibit the transfer of any prisoners to American soil, and the use of state or federal funds to construct new facilities to house detainees. Imprisonment, prosecutions, and torture at the detention centre have therefore de facto been permitted to continue.
Regarding the hunger strikers, two judges sitting on an appeals court in Washington questioned the idea of force feeding being necessary to maintain order in the prison last October, during a hearing held for four detainees seeking transfer. Obama earlier defended the practice at a press conference in April by stating: “I don’t want these individuals to die.” With the House of Representatives currently controlled by the Republican Party, it can be easy to think that Obama’s intentions have simply been frustrated by political opponents. Yet the actions of an increasingly partisan lower house does not explain why the Senate, with a Democrat majority, narrowly voted against an attempted amendment of the Defense Authorization Bill in November 2012, which would have allowed for the transfer of prisoners.
If anything, recent events suggest that Obama can push controversial legislation through Congress, provided he can successfully exploit divisions within the GOP. However, with the economy continuing to be a central issue for both parties in Washington, any new serious legislative measures are unlikely to be proposed from within government in the short term. It therefore falls to committed organisations and individuals to continue pressuring the Obama administration to carry out its original promise, both in the interest of preventing a further eroding of American credibility in the face of its allies and zones of conflict, and in the name of preserving human dignity.