Protest to demand the release of Yemenis detained at Guantanamo Bay, outside the U.S. embassy in Sanaa April 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)
“I will not eat until they restore my dignity.” That’s what Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel told his lawyer by phone from Guantánamo Bay. On April 14, Moqbel’s cry became a harrowing New York Times op-ed, his message mixing despair, defiance and warnings of impending death. “One man here weighs just 77 pounds,” Moqbel wrote. “Another, 98. Last thing I knew, I weighed 132, but that was a month ago.”
Days later, The Guardian published a letter from another hunger striker, Shaker Aamer, whose words cut to the heart of the protest. “As of today, I’ve spent more than 11 years in Guantánamo Bay,” he wrote. “To be precise, it’s been 4,084 long days and nights. I’ve never been charged with any crime.”
Moqbel and Aamer are among the eighty-six prisoners languishing at the prison despite having long been cleared for release. Moqbel, like most of these men, hails from Yemen; after the failed 2009 suicide attack by the so-called “underwear bomber,” who trained in Yemen, the White House implemented a policy of caging its Yemeni detainees indefinitely. The fact that fifty-six are apparently innocent of any crime is of little concern; in March, State Department adviser Michael Williams told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the Yemenis will stay in Guantánamo for “the foreseeable future.”
Such cruelty breeds desperation. Last year, Adnan Latif was finally sent home to Yemen in a coffin after almost eleven years; he had ostensibly overdosed on pills. Since the hunger strike began, at least two men have attempted suicide. “I do not want to die here,” wrote Moqbel, “but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day.” On April 1, Yemeni protesters held posters of their imprisoned loved ones outside the US Embassy in Saana.
The Pentagon, which once called prisoner suicides “asymmetric warfare,” has dismissed the hunger strike as a publicity stunt. Rather than “reward bad behavior,” the official response has been to throw the men into solitary confinement and keep the most weakened alive through torturous means. Moqbel described how eight members of the prison’s Extreme Reaction Force tied him to a hospital bed, forced an IV into his hand and left him there for twenty-six hours. More than twenty men are now slated for force-feeding, which means being strapped to a chair and having tubes carrying a liquid diet shoved into their noses. In late April, forty “medical reinforcements” arrived on the island to assist.
“I don’t want these individuals to die,” Obama told reporters on April 30, adding that “the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can.” He also recommitted to closing Guantánamo, calling on Congress to “step up and help.”
It’s true that lawmakers on both sides have fought hard to make transfers impossible. But Obama’s words ignored how his own policies set the stage for the crisis. “He has said the right thing before,” Guantánamo lawyer Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights told The Nation. “It’s time now for action.” The CCR is calling on Obama to end his “self-imposed moratorium” on releasing Yemenis and resume prisoner transfers. It has also called for Obama to appoint a senior official to “shepherd the process of closure.”
As the hunger strike approaches its hundredth day on May 17, more than 100 of Guantánamo’s 166 prisoners are refusing food. The president must start living up to his rhetoric about closing the prison, the CCR warns, or “the men who are on hunger strike will die, and he will be ultimately responsible for their deaths.”