Fahd Ghazy is known at Guantánamo Bay as 026, his Internment Serial Number. These numbers were assigned to Guantánamo prisoners in chronological order according to their arrival. Fahd has a low number because he was among the first prisoners sent to the offshore prison former President George W Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney established to detain and torture captives in the “war on terror.” Fahd was initially housed at Camp X-ray – a makeshift arrangement of kennels recognizable from the iconic photographs of shackled men in orange jumpsuits and blackout goggles. He was just 17 years old, plummeting down a rabbit hole, unaware he had arrived at what would be his home for the next 11 years and counting.
A few months before Fahd’s arrival, it would have been impossible to foresee the tragedy about to befall him. He was married and celebrating the arrival of his baby daughter, Hafsa. He had just received his diploma from Al-Najah, a secondary school near Beyt Ghazy on the outskirts of Sana’a, Yemen. An ambitious and capable student, Fahd graduated first in his class. Like any young father, he believed obtaining a university degree would guarantee his family a better life. Sana’a University is well regarded, so Fahd applied. He was admitted to the Faculty of Science and awarded a scholarship. The good news reached him in his cell at Guantánamo.
In 2007, the Bush administration rightly concluded that Fahd did not belong at Guantánamo and decided to send him home. When I began representing Fahd roughly five years ago, he showed me a worn piece of paper containing the official notice of his impending release. The letter is laconic, stating only that Fahd “has been approved for release from Guantánamo, subject to the process of making appropriate diplomatic arrangements for his departure.”
In May, Fahd will turn 29. He is still at Guantánamo. The notification of his release is meaningless, just a painful reminder of how different things might have been. Fahd and I spoke to each other a few weeks ago and he gave me some news: he is on a hunger strike and has not eaten since February.
As The Global Journal reported in April, Fahd is not alone – at the time of writing, the mass hunger strike at Guantánamo had reached its third month. Fahd and the other men I represent report the strike has near universal participation in Guantánamo’s two main detention facilities, Camps 5 and 6. For all of its predictability, the impact on the prisoners’ bodies has been no less harrowing. Their weight has dropped so precipitously that some of the men are skeletal. Fahd has begun limiting his movements to conserve energy. Many prisoners are losing consciousness, some repeatedly. Others have been coughing up blood.
The less visible toll of starvation remains unclear. At Guantánamo, secrecy is paramount. Civilian access to the prisoners is severely restricted. No independent physician has yet evaluated the hunger strikers. Clinical research in the field, however, cautions us to brace for the worst. According to the World Medical Association, at day 40 of a hunger strike, irreversible cognitive impairment and physiological damage can occur. Death soon follows.
Remarkably, the United States (US) government seems untroubled. On 11 April, Under Secretary of Defense, William Lietzau, wrote to the Center for Constitutional Rights to assure us “detention practices at Guantánamo are humane.” He also reminded us the Department of Defense “support[s] the preservation of life through appropriate clinical means…” For the uninitiated, that means force-feeding through nasogastric intubation – strapping prisoners to restraint chairs, forcing rubber tubes up their noses and pumping liquid supplements into their stomachs. Eleven men at Guantánamo are being kept alive in this manner.
A crackdown by the Guantánamo guard staff triggered the current hunger strike. During cell searches in February, guards confiscated the prisoners’ personal effects, including family photos and keepsakes – items of monumental significance when memories of a loved-one are receding into oblivion. But worse, under the pretext of searching for improvised weapons, the prison administration reinstituted a policy of searching the prisoners’ Qur’ans – a decision as provocative as it was reckless. The Department of Defense knows from past experience that searching the pages and binding of the Qur’an constitutes desecration in the eyes of the prisoners and invites the very response that has now jeopardized the lives of dozens of men.
Hunger strikes are nothing new at Guantánamo. As early as 2002, prisoners resorted to starving themselves to expose the horror of indefinite detention without charge or trial. But this strike is different. It is desperate. Until now, my clients have been surviving at Guantánamo on hope. For Fahd, who has spent more than a third of his life at the prison, an enduring hope that he will see his daughter again is his only comfort. But hopelessness is an equally powerful sentiment. It has convinced many at Guantánamo to risk their own demise to protest a system of such violence.
This may be the beginning of the endgame at Guantánamo. Four years ago, there was consensus across the American political spectrum that Guantánamo should be shuttered. So how did we reach the point where most of the 166 remaining prisoners are engaged in a potentially deadly hunger strike?
The explanation was glaringly obvious at a public hearing in Washington, DC last month. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Americas’ foremost human rights body, called representatives of the Obama administration to comment on its Guantánamo policy. It was the first time they had done so since the President’s re-election. The IACHR asked two questions: does the US still intend to close Guantánamo? And, if so, what steps are currently underway to achieve that objective? After 11 years, 166 prisoners detained in perpetuity (all but a handful without charge), 86 men languishing despite being cleared for release, torture methods with peculiar names like the “frequent flyer program,” hundreds of attempted suicides and nine deaths, there was nothing else to discuss.
The IACHR posed the questions with the same urgency that recently led United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, to decry the suffering at Guantánamo and demand the facility’s immediate closure. Renewed international scrutiny of Guantánamo is driven by an abiding concern that President Obama’s course of action – inaction, really – threatens to normalize one of the most abominable relics of the Bush/Cheney era.
If the Obama administration shared that concern, detailed answers would have been forthcoming. They were not. Senior administration officials failed to offer a single measure currently underway to close the prison. It was a fine display of diplomatic rhetoric, but offered little for men like Fahd whose very survival may depend on glimpsing light at the end of the tunnel. The most obvious explanation for the administration’s silence is also the most disheartening. The President appears to have calculated he can withstand the political costs of continuing to operate the detention facility. He has made his peace with Guantánamo as an enduring part of his legacy.
Criticism like that seems pointed only if one ignores the President’s record, especially in regards to Congress. Obama met every legislative maneuver to keep Guantánamo open with acquiescence. Congressional obstructionism began with the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which barred the use of funds to transfer Guantánamo prisoners unless the Secretary of Defense personally certifies each man for release. Under the legislation, however, such an act is possible only after the Secretary of Defense determines the country slated to receive an ex-prisoner meets certain security conditions – a practically unachievable qualification.
Each subsequent iteration of the NDAA has included the same onerous restrictions. Congress correctly gambled that the President would fold if the legislation even marginally increased the political cost of releasing Guantánamo prisoners – hence the cunning, and utterly effective, device of requiring the Secretary of Defense to personally sign off on each transfer. Still, even Congress could not have predicted Obama would abandon his plan to close Guantánamo altogether. Yet, that is precisely what he has done.
Administration officials disagree. They insist Obama is dedicated to closing the detention facility. Try convincing the prisoners. The numbers speak for themselves: transfers from Guantánamo have plummeted from roughly 71 in 2009-10, to just five in the years since – not including Adnan Latif, who left in a coffin in 2012. And as far as anyone can tell, President Obama never sought the certification of a single prisoner for transfer – not even one of the 86 men the administration itself cleared for release. Nor did he require former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, to invoke the waiver provisions that would permit the administration to sidestep the NDAA’s most severe restrictions. I see no evidence the President will make recently confirmed Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, break rank with his predecessor.
Equally devastating to Fahd, and the 90 or so of his countrymen at Guantánamo, is the President’s persistent defense of his moratorium on repatriations to Yemen. The moratorium was instituted in 2010 after the failed “underwear-bomber” attack, which was seen as proof that Obama was no longer “soft on terror” – a trope that is both cynical and starkly at odds with his wide-ranging and lethal drone program. The gambit paid political dividends, but with it, President Obama gained the unfortunate distinction of adding collective punishment on the basis of nationality to the litany of Guantánamo’s human rights violations.
Like Fahd, my client, Tariq Ba Odah, is trapped at Guantánamo under the moratorium. When I first learned of the current hunger strike, I thought of him immediately. Tariq is what is known at Guantánamo as a ‘long term’ hunger striker. He began his strike six years ago, in February 2007. Nearly every day since, he has been strapped to a restraint chair and force-fed through his nose. But for Tariq, who has never been charged, to voluntarily accept food from his jailer would be to surrender the last shred of his humanity. He weighs just 90 pounds and is slowly withering away. Tariq recognized long ago that death is probably the fastest way out of Guantánamo. In any event, it is becoming the most common. More men have died in US custody at Guantánamo than have been convicted by military tribunal.
President Obama should be deeply concerned Guantánamo’s remaining prisoners are arriving collectively at Tariq’s grim conclusion: Guantánamo is a death sentence from which there is likely no reprieve. If indeed this is the endgame at Guantánamo, it will be an excruciating one for the prisoners. Perhaps the President can weather the political costs of continuing to operate Guantánamo. I wonder though if he has yet weighed the human cost. Inevitably, this will be the measure by which history judges Obama if he presides over the slow death of a population of exclusively Muslim prisoners at an offshore internment camp, most of whom are cleared for release and have never been charged or tried.
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Photo on Homepage © by Edmund Clark