The prisoners’ hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay grew again this week to more than one fifth of the camp’s 166 detainees since its start on Feb. 5. Representatives from the Red Cross traveled to the detention center a week ahead of an already scheduled visit in order to investigate the situation.
Thirty-seven men were on strike, and 11 of those were receiving nutrition through feeding tubes as of March 29, according to JTF-GTMO spokesman Capt. Robert Durand. This number is far smaller than what the prisoners have told their lawyers. “My client [Ghaleb al-Bihani] says everyone in Camp Six but two people, who are quite old,” are on strike, Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitution Rights, who represents one of the prisoners currently on strike, told msnbc.com. Camp Six is the communal facility in which 130 men are currently being held.
The current mass hunger strike began in February after guards conducted searches that included the prisoners’ Korans; prisoners have accused guards of handling the holy books improperly during the search and argue that Korans should be exempt from all searches. Military officials have repeatedly denied that the Korans were mishandled in any way and that the searches were a necessary security measure, as Carol Rosenberg reported in the Miami Herald in mid-March. A spokesman also dismissed “absurd” allegations from an emergency motion filed last week that guards refused to give prisoners water.
Tensions over religious tolerance and respect may have been the acute cause for the hunger strike, but after two months and steadily increasing official numbers, it is impossible to ignore the fact that many of the men participating in the protest should no longer remain in U.S. custody. Eighty-six prisoners of 166 have been cleared for release by an Obama administration task force, and yet they remain at the facility. Despite earlier promises to close the notorious prison, President Obama has met with serious congressional opposition to shuttering it. Fifty-six of the men in this post-exoneration, pre-release limbo are Yemeni, according to Kebrieai; the president suspended the return of Yemeni detainees three years ago due to security concerns. The U.S. Southern Command’s recent request for nearly $200 million to fund upgrades to the prison, including $49 million for a new prison facility, suggests that these 86 men could face a long wait for freedom.
“The mood is one of desperation,” said attorney David Remes, who is representing 15 Guantanamo prisoners–13 of whom are participating in the strike. He told msnbc.com that after nearly 12 years and countless logisitical and legal hurdles, it seems few options remain. “My clients told me they are determined to leave Guantanamo one way or the other, either by being sent home or in a box.”
Guantanamo’s continued operation has receded from view as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, but the issue of what to do with the men held here, some of whom have been waiting years to go home, is no closer to being resolved than when the prison started accepting detainees in 2002.