“I am slowly dying in this solitary prison cell,” says Omar Deghayes, a British refugee and Guantánamo Bay prisoner. “I have no rights, no hope. So why not take my destiny into my own hands, and die for a principle?”
This magazine goes to press on the forty-ninth day of the Guantánamo hunger strike. In 1981 near Belfast, Bobby Sands and nine other members of the IRA starved themselves to death. The prisoners had insisted that they be treated as POWs rather than criminals. They died before the British government accepted that its use of kangaroo courts and its policy of “criminalization” did not just betray democratic principles; these methods functioned as the most persuasive recruiting sergeant the IRA ever had. How soon these lessons are forgotten. Three and a half years of internment without trial in Guantánamo, and any US claim to be the standard-bearer of the rule of law has dissolved.
But there are two important distinctions between the experience of Sands and Omar Deghayes: The US military has insisted on secrecy regarding Guantánamo, and the US media have been compliant in their apathy. Despite the traditional British hostility to free speech, every moment of Bobby Sands’s decline was broadcast live. In contrast, nothing we lawyers learn from our Guantánamo clients can be revealed until it passes the US government censors. Thus, two weeks went by before the public even knew there was a hunger strike, and the military has been allowed to dissemble on the details since.
From its inception, Guantánamo has relied on a soldier-speak that is replete with half-truths and distortions. In 2002 there was a ripple of concern at the number of Guantánamo detainees trying to take their own lives. The military then announced that suicide attempts had radically declined. It took a foreign journalist to expose the truth: The very word “suicide” had been replaced by the authorities with the term Manipulative Self-Injurious Behavior (SIB)–and there were still plenty of SIBs. The military was lying by semantics.
Similar dissimulation is taking place around the Guantánamo hunger strike, which began June 28. It was suspended July 28, when the military promised various concessions, terrified at the public relations prospect of having six prisoners in the hospital within forty-eight hours of death. The strike started again on August 11, because the detainees concluded that the military had broken its promises.
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has insisted that the Guantánamo prisoners are being treated in a manner “consistent” with the Geneva Conventions. To end their hunger strike, the detainees ask simply that they be treated in a manner “consistent with the Geneva Conventions.” If Rumsfeld is telling the truth, why would the prisoners have to starve themselves to death?