The ongoing hunger strike at the U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has not succeeded in freeing any of the prisoners or closing the camp. But it has forced the issue into the spotlight.
“It is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe, it’s expensive, it is inefficient, it hurts us in terms of our international standing, it lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts, it is a recruitment tool for extremists, it needs to be closed,” President Obama said in a press conference Tuesday. “Now Congress determined they would not let us close it.”
Senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights Pardiss Kebriaei said that until Tuesday, the president had not yet taken a strong stand on the Guantanamo prison since his earlier efforts to close it had failed. “To hear him say it’s not sustainable, that he needs to take action is promising,” said Kebriaei, who represents several of the detainees participating in the hunger strike. “The president needs to be participating.”
Despite promises to close the camp, President Obama doesn’t seem to have put much political muscle into the effort.
Forty U.S. navy medical personnel, including nurses, arrived over the weekend. The influx of personnel had been planned “as part of a contingency during the ongoing hunger strike,” said Army Lt. Col. Samuel House in a statement. A New York Times op-ed written earlier this month by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a detainee participating in the hunger strike, said, “There are so many of us on hunger strike now that there aren’t enough qualified medical staff members to carry out the force-feedings; nothing is happening at regular intervals. They are feeding people around the clock just to keep up.”
Conditions are deteriorating. The hunger strike, which began on February 6th after guards mishandled Qurans, now includes 100 of the 166 detainees (according to the Pentagon), 21 of whom have been approved for force-feeding via tubes inserted through the nasal cavity. Several lawyers for the detainees say the numbers of those participating has been more than 100 for the last several weeks.
Since guards moved all remaining detainees in Camp 6 to solitary cells on April 13, some to Camp 5, other remain in Camp 6, living conditions for prisoners have only worsened, said attorney Ranjana Natarajan, who represents one of the detainees. Before April 13, detainees in Camp 6 lived communally with their cells unlocked for the majority of the day. They moved with relative freedom and used the communal outdoor space for group activities including soccer. Now their cells are locked for most of the day and their physical activity is strictly regulated. Guards are intentionally interfering with detainees’ sleep by offering recreational time and showers in the middle of the night, says Natarajan. Natarajan last spoke with her client on Friday April 26 by phone. He informed her that some of the detainees have still not received all of their belongings since being moved to isolation, including toothpaste, toothbrushes, and soap.
Eighty-six detainees have received clearances for a transfer or release. Many have been waiting for their clearance or transfer for months, even years. It remains unclear how many of those 86 are participating in the hunger strike.