Monday, April 8, 2013

Hunger Strike Underscores Malign Neglect at Guantanamo

      Eleven years later and counting, the Guantanamo prison camp remains a festering sore for the United States, a failure in its own terms as counterterrorism policy and a stain on the United States’ human rights reputation abroad.
      Four years after President Obama’s bold promise to close the prison camp within a year, it still houses 166 detainees. Most of them — 86 to be precise — have been cleared for release to their home or a third country. But they remain in limbo thanks to a policy of malign neglect that Congress has enacted and the Obama administration has failed to resist.
      Now, the prisoners themselves are demanding attention in the only means available to them: a hunger strike. Guantanamo officials say about 40 of the men are refusing food and 11 are being force-fed. David Remes, an attorney representing 15 detainees, says he has been told the number is much larger: most or virtually all of the 130 prisoners in Guantanamo’s Camp 6, the largest facility. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the New York-based public interest law firm that helps provide representation for the prisoners, says the protest amounts to “a grave crisis.”
      The immediate provocation for the hunger strike appears to have been the resumption in February of a policy of searching prisoners’ Qurans for possible contraband. Military spokesmen say the guards use protective gloves in the searches, but the Muslim prisoners consider them a desecration of their holy book.
      More to the point, the need for the searches is disputed. In a letter to CCR written last week [April 1], William Lietzau, deputy assistant secretary of defense for rule of law and detainee policy, claimed that “improvised weapons” and “unauthorized food and medicine” have been found hidden in prisoners’ Qurans. But Carol Rosenberg, the Miami Herald reporter who has been the most persistent journalist watchdog on Guantanamo, has been asking the Pentagon since mid-March for details, including photographs of any seized items, but no information has been provided.
      The military “has yet to substantiate” the claim, Rosenberg wrote in her April 5 story. Remes scoffs at the allegations, noting that observant Muslims would consider it a sacrilege to hide items inside a copy of the Koran. Nevertheless, Lietzau said in his letter that it is “imperative” that the policy continue.
      As serious as the Quran search issue may be, the hunger strike has now broadened into an anguished cry in protest of what is now more than a decade of legal limbo for the prisoners. The strike, Remes says, has become “a protest against the fact that they’re being held indefinitely, without charge, and with no end in sight.”
      Reports of the hunger strike prompted the United Nations’ chief human rights official to renew her call for closing the prison camp. The prolonged detention of the prisoners “raises serious concerns under international law,” Navi Pillay, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights wrote in a statement late last week. The failure to close the camp also “weakens [the United States’] position when addressing human rights violations elsewhere,” she added.
      The international criticism might be a sensible cost for a superpower to bear if the policy advanced U.S. purposes, but it does not, as well documented in a thoroughly reported critical examination of Guantanamo policies by Wall Street Journal reporter Jess Bravin. In his book The Terror Courts, Bravin recalls the fateful decisions by the Bush administration to stash supposed “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo, they thought beyond the reach of federal courts, and then create from scratch a brand-new system of military commissions to try the detainees. “The legal equivalent of a war of choice,” Bravin calls it.
      The decision to bypass either the established military court system or civilian courts did not solve, it caused, problems. In three successive decisions, the Supreme Court rebuffed the Bush administration’s attempt to shield the military commissions from judicial review. On top of those delays, the commissions themselves were forced, in effect, to re-invent the wheel — and the personnel selected for the jobs did not acquit themselves well.
      Bush and Congress responded to one of the Supreme Court’s decision, in 2006, with a law trying to fix some of the problems. When Obama took office, with a Democratic-controlled Congress, he tried to revamp the system further. But Obama bowed to restrictions voted by Congress that bar bringing Guantanamo prisoners to the mainland for trial and make transfers out exceedingly difficult.
      A decade out, the commissions have adjudicated only a few cases, with paltry penalties, while federal courts have tried and convicted dozens, often with long sentences. The current trial of the 9/11 conspiracy case at Guantanamo drags on, prolonged by antics from the defendants that a federal judge would have long since stopped. Despite reforms and reassurances from the newly appointed chief prosecutor, Bravin is unsatisfied. “The question remains,” he writes in conclusion, “whether [the commissions] can be done right at all.”
      The hunger-striking detainees ask the same question about the whole Guantanamo system. “The men are at their wit’s end,” Remes says. “They say to me and other defense counsel, ‘Look, we’re going to get out of here one way or the other. We’re either going to be released or we’re going to go out in a box.’ You have that level of desperation.”

1 comment:

  1. Strong piece. Best summing-up I've seen of the strike and its significance - especially noteworthy given the low level of attention to the strike and to Guantánamo in general.