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Hunger Strikes and Indefinite Detention: A Rundown on What’s Going on at Gitmo

More than 50 detainees are on hunger strike, underlining the uncertainty that surrounds the future of military detention at Gitmo. We break down what’s known about the prison.

April 25: This post has been updated to reflect new developments.

It’s been 11 years since the first detainees were brought to Guantanamo Bay. But the future of the prison, and the fate of the men inside it, is far from certain.  As of April 25th, 94 men at Gitmo are currently on hunger strike, by the military's count. (See the Miami Herald's timeline tracking the strike as it grows.)  Here’s a primer on what’s going at the island prison.


What started the hunger strike?

It began after guards allegedly mishandled detainees’ Korans in a cell search in early February — but it’s certainly become about more than the holy books.

The military says detainees have previously hidden “improvised weapons, unauthorized food and medicine” in the spines of the Korans, and that the February searches were standard, conducted by Muslim translators. (Koran searches had set off hunger strikes before, in 2005.)

Attorneys for hunger strikers say the detainees have offered to relinquish their Korans rather than have them searched. The military initially would not accept that option, but now says, “if they choose not to have one, they choose not to have one.”

In any case, just about everyone – from the International Committee of the Red Cross to the general in charge of U.S. Southern Command – agrees the strike comes out of growing frustration and hopelessness among detainees. As we detail below, there are few indications that Gitmo will be shuttered or detainees transferred in the near future. The last detainee to leave Gitmo, last fall, was dead.

General Kelly, of U.S. Southern Command, said last month that detainees had watched Obama’s State of the Union address, and heard no mention of Guantanamo. “That has caused them to become frustrated and they want to ... turn the heat up, get it back in the media,” Kelly said.

The military is sending extra nurses and doctors down, but as the New York Times recently framed it,  any decision to transfer detainees will be made in Washington, so “prison officials’ power to alleviate the crisis is limited.”

In an account published in the New York Times, a Yemeni hunger striker named Samir Moqbel said he hoped “that because of the pain we are suffering, the eyes of the world will once again look to Guantánamo before it is too late.” (Moqbel had recounted his story by phone to his lawyers.)

Another detainee, a Saudi Arabian named Shaker Aamer, also recently wrote an op-ed. Calling himself “a bit of a professional hunger striker,” Aamer said “this one is a whole lot different.” Lawyers say the strike is far more widespread than the military’s count.

According to the military, two detainees have attempted suicide since the strike began.

Have there been clashes between guards and the prisoners?

Yes. In an early-morning raid on April 13th, soldiers in riot gear moved about 60 of the detainees from their communal living camp into individual cells. Guards fired four “less-than-lethal” rounds; they say some prisoners wielded makeshift weapons, constructed from broken broomsticks and plastic water bottles filled with rocks.

Military commanders told the Miami Herald that the once “compliant” detainees had been ignoring orders for months, “covering cameras, poking guards with sticks through fences, spraying U.S. forces with urine and refusing to lock themselves inside their cells for nightly sweeps.”

In January, there was an altercation on the facility’s new soccer field, which ended with guards shooting “one non-lethal round” at a group of detainees.

In a statement, the military said the detainees were being placed on lockdown to allow for “round-the-clock monitoring.” In recent years, the communal living arrangement had been redone to “feel more like a dorm.” Now, the Miami Herald reports, those men are confined to their cells, without TV, legal documents, and the other things they were previously allowed.

In turn, detainees’ lawyers have said that prison guards became stricter in recent months, and that mail and personal items have been confiscated in cell searches.

An attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Omar Farah, told ProPublica that he and other lawyers feared that the move to individual cells would cut off information about the strike. “The primary way we’ve been getting information is through prisoners’ accounts of one other.”

Are the strikers being mistreated?

At least one detainee has alleged that the hunger strikers are being punished, by being forced to drink potentially unsafe tap water and cold temperatures in their cells. The military disputes that, saying the tap water is safe and bottled water is available. A federal judge ruled he did not have jurisdiction to weigh in on the prisoner’s treatment.

What about force-feeding?

As of April 25th, 17 detainees are being force-fed nutritional supplements through tubes inserted into their noses. The military says strikers “present” themselves for the procedure, though it also says passing out counts as consent.

Others have been tied down for feedings. Moqbel, in his account in the New York Times, said he was once tied to a bed for 26 hours last month. Now, he wrote, “Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come.”

The Red Cross and other groups oppose force-feeding; they say prisoners have a right to choose whether they eat. The U.S. military position is that it would be inhumane to let prisoners starve. A spokesman told the Miami Herald allowing a detainee to harm himself “is anathema to our values as Americans.”

How many prisoners are left at Gitmo?

166. Since 2002, a total of 779 people have been held there.

No one has been brought to Gitmo under President Obama. The last people to leave were two Uighur Muslims from China, who were resettled in El Salvador last spring, and Omar Khadr, a man who was transferred to prison in his native Canada last fall. Adnan Latif, a Yemeni, died in an apparent suicide in September. He was the ninth detainee to die.

Does the U.S. consider the detainees still there all dangerous terrorists?

No. In fact, about half the detainees have been approved for release. Here’s the government’s categorization of people held at Gitmo, as of last November:

  • 56 have been cleared for transfer to their own or a third country. Last fall, the State Department made 55 of those names public.
  • 30 Yemenis have been cleared to be sent back to Yemen, but are being held because of an unstable security situation there.
  • 24 people have “possible prosecution pending.” (Though recent court rulings on the scope of military commissions may have shrunk that number.)
  • 46 are being held in indefinite detention under the 2001 authorization for military force: they’ve been deemed too dangerous to release, but are not facing prosecution.
  • Seven are facing trial by military commissions. That includes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.
  • Three were convicted in military commissions and are serving out their sentences or fulfilling plea bargains. (Four others were also convicted but transferred to their home countries.)

The U.S. won’t release the names of those it considers hunger strikers, and it’s not always clear which category detainees fall into. Some of those who have spoken through their lawyers are on the cleared-for-transfer list (Moqbel, of the New York Times op-ed, is not, though he claims he is among the group of Yemenis who may be transferred.)

Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald says she has been told that the 9/11 defendants and the rest of the 16 “high-value” detainees, who were brought to Gitmo from the CIA’s black-site prisons, are not participating in the hunger strike. They are held in a separate, secret section of the camp. (See the Herald’s “prison-camp primer” for descriptions of where the detainees are held.)

Why haven’t the people cleared for transfer been released?

Over the past few years Congress effectively prohibited bringing detainees to the U.S. and made it difficult to send them to other countries, by requiring an assurance that the individual would never pose a threat to the U.S. in the future.

Difficult, but not impossible – there are waivers in the legislation that allow the president to get around the restrictions in certain cases. Human rights groups are pushing the administration to use those waivers, but Obama has yet to do so. Four detainees have been sent abroad since the law on overseas transfers went into effect, but in each case, it was to fulfill a court-ordered release or a military commission plea agreement, which Congress allowed. (The Supreme Court has ruled the men at Gitmo have the right to challenge their detention in federal court.)

As for the Yemenis still at Gitmo, Obama announced a moratorium on transfers to Yemen after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of 2009. There are also fears about recidivism – a report this year from the Director of National Intelligence estimates that 16 percent of released detainees have “reengaged” in militant activities. (Most of them were released under President George W. Bush.)

Other countries have also called for the release of their citizens. The president of Yemen, which has worked closely with the U.S. on drones and counterterrorism, recently referred to Gitmo as “clear-cut tyranny.”  Britain has also reportedly lobbied for the release of one of the hunger strikers, Shaker Aamer, who has British residency. The UN commissioner for human rights has said that “indefinite incarceration” at Gitmo “is in clear breach of international law.”

Why hasn’t Obama closed Gitmo?

The White House says he “remains committed” to closing Gitmo, but those plans have stalled in the face of congressional opposition.

One of Obama’s first acts in office was an executive order to shut down the prison within a year. He didn’t rule out continued military detention or trial in military commissions, but temporarily suspended the commissions and required a review of the status of the Gitmo detainees.

In a speech a few months later, Obama said that “the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained,” and had “set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world.”

Since then, lawmakers have passed restrictions and the administration has dropped many of its visible efforts to shut down Gitmo.

This January, the State Department shut down the office responsible for detainee resettlement. Even if transfer restrictions were loosened, it’s not clearwhat would happen to the prisoners who are being held indefinitely. A new periodic review process for the detainees was created in 2011, though it still hasn’t actually begun. Officials told the New York Times that agencies – in particular, the CIA – could not agree on how the process would deal with evidence obtained by torture. Military commissions started up again, with some changes -- though still plenty of controversy, including questions about government censorship and surveillance and what crimes can legitimately be charged.

What can outside observers see at Gitmo?

Not much beyond what the military wants them to see.

The competing claims about water quality, numbers of strikers, and the Koran searches underscore the limited, often one-sided, information that gets out. Detainees communicate mostly through their lawyers. The military controls access to the prison.  It recently stopped commercial flights to the base, a decision met with anger from attorneys and quickly reversed. For a few weeks recently, reporters were shut out of the prison.

A Reuters photographer recently recounted his tightly-monitored visit, and what he was and wasn’t allowed to shoot (totally fine: signs saying “No Photos.” Not fine: detainees’ faces.) Carol Rosenberg, of the Miami Herald, also recently described the restrictions on reporting from Gitmo, which she’s been doing for 11 years. She’s never been allowed to speak to a detainee.

The Red Cross has access to prisoners and has been to Gitmo during the strike, though its findings are rarely made public. Last week, the group’s president called the legal situation of prisoners there “untenable.

How much does Guantanamo cost?

A lot. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office said the prison costs, on average, $114 million per year, not including military personnel. A 2011 analysis put the annual cost per prisoner at $800,000 – as much as 30 times what it costs to keep someone in federal prison.

The Pentagon has proposed a more than $150 million overhaul of the facility this year.

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