A brutal first-person account of forced feedings at Guantanamo Bay published earlier this week has ignited newfound debate over the virtue of a remote off-shore detention facility.
One of the hunger strikers says, through his lawyer, that military guards have reduced the conditions at the detention facility to sub-human standards. The more than 30-day-old protest among dozens of the detainees will end if the guards agree to respect their holy books, he says.
The Defense Department dismisses the detainees' claims as an ongoing "concerted information operation" campaign.
"We're not even looking for human rights, we're looking for animal rights. And the way we've been treated here in Guantanamo Bay is nothing less than being treated like a dog," recounts Jason Wright, a U.S. Army captain with the Office of the Chief Defense Counsel, of a discussion with his client, known as Obaidullah.
Military officials at Guantanamo Bay have denied Wright and other defense attorneys from visiting their clients in recent days, they say.
The hunger strike began after detainees witnessed Joint Task Force–GTMO guards on Feb. 7 conducting a complete "shakedown" of all of the Camp 6 cells to search for contraband, Obaidullah told Wright. The guards flipped through and shook detainees' copies of the Koran, he claims, ignoring cultural restrictions on handling the holy book. Camp 6 is one of the detention facilities for non-high value detainees where they usually have access to one another in a communal living configuration. In a raid that turned violent on Saturday, guards forcibly moved the detainees into single-cell confinement where they remain on lockdown.
Requests for comment from JTF-GTMO were not returned in time for this report.
"The detainees' negotiating posture was, 'Just don't search the Koran,'" says Wright. "'That's all we're asking. And if you think you want to search the Koran, you can take them back. It's more important for us to respect and revere God than it is to have it searched in such a rough and vile manner.'"
Wright says there has been "no constructive engagement on these issues," from military officials. The Pentagon disagrees.
"This is an absurdly baseless claim built around establishing a foothold in the media, and has no basis in fact," says Defense Department spokesman Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale. "Any reference to mishandling any religious article is 100 percent due to a concerted information operation campaign waged by the detainees."
The hunger strike began over 30 days ago and involves as many as 60 of the 166 detainees on the island, according to some reports. Wright says "a vast majority" of them are participating, except for the sick or elderly, and that it serves as "a proxy for the frustration of indefinite detention, of detention without trial and of false promises by [President Barack] Obama to close the facility."
Wright visited Obaidullah most recently between March 18 and March 22, when the native Afghan said his weight had dropped from 167 pounds to 125 pounds as a result of the protest. Obaidullah has been detained at the U.S. base, often referred to as Gitmo, for 11 years for a suspected affiliation as an IED expert with an al-Qaida cell in Khost, according to documents obtained by the New York Times.
Obaidullah also says the guards now choose to enforce operating procedures from 2006 that prohibit the detainees from having any unofficial items in their cells, such as books or pictures of their families, and that the Camp 6 facility has been made uncomfortably cold after the temperature was turned down roughly 10 degrees.
"There have been no changes in the way the camp administers access to privileges," says Breasseale. "But the camp is enforcing its long-standing rules against contraband."
"I'm unaware of any of the detainees having access to thermometers," he says, adding the temperature in the cells is between 70 and 74 degrees in keeping with "long standing procedure at the facility."
Wright says detainees have started scribbling "SOS" on the outside of their cells to attract media attention, so "the world would understand what's happening around Guantanamo Bay."
"This is supposed to be a preventative detention under the rules of war, not punitive detention," he says. "But the command's philosophy just upended it. They want to treat these men like criminals."
His requests to meet with the commander of the detention facility have been denied. Wright's defense team colleagues have also been denied access to meet with their client the week of April 22.
"In our request for meetings, we explained to JTF-GTMO our concern for our client's health," says defense attorney Cindy Panuco in an email to U.S. News. The defense team also had an April 29 deadline to file an appeal, which it needed to discuss with Obaidullah.
"That request was denied and the only justification given was 'Unfortunately, Guantanamo is unable to accommodate this request for the specified time frame,'" she says.
The defense team did not submit the requests 20 days in advance of the visit, per regulations, Panuco says.
"It appears that even under the current circumstances and with an impending litigation deadline, they will not approve our visit," she says.
The U.S. government has no plans to try Obaidullah in the "foreseeable future," says Wright, adding the defense team has evidence that would prove his innocence.
"So he's stuck in a situation of indefinite detention right now; a legal limbo," he says. "Afghanistan is not clamoring for his return, but also the U.S. government is not doing anything to work on his repatriation release, or his trial."
- A Terrorist's Defense: Fighting for Men Most Americans Hate
- Hagel Favors Closing Military Prison at Guantanamo
- Military Courts Can Only Prosecute Suspects Accused of War Crimes