A Fast for Justice: From Winter to Winter

Here we are in Washington, DC, again on the 12th anniversary of Guantanamo with my friends from Witness Against Torture (WAT).

January 2013–From the Last Fast 

When we left DC in January 2013, we were in the mind-frame that Guantanamo would not be closing anytime soon with 0 releases from the prison in the previous year, excluding the death of Adnan Latif and the transfer of Omar Khadr to another prison in Canada.

February 2013–A New Hunger Strike

Then, the game changed when military guards raided prison cells in February 2013, throwing the belongings of prisoners–Qurans, legal papers, and letters from their families. A new hunger strike grew, which has now become the largest and longest running protest inside the prison. Government officials denied any such knowledge of a hunger strike. It was only known after Shaker Aamer reported to his attorneys that nearly all the men in GTMO were on a hunger strike.

The strike peaked in June at 106 men on hunger strike and 45 being force-fed. What has been forgotten on the minds of Americans, where most had assumed Guantanamo had been closed by Obama, was now in the media headlines. Even mainstream comedy such as the Colbert Report and the Daily Show were talking about the protest.

Spring 2013–On Our Minds Again

Witness Against Torture orchestrated a rolling fast, which called for people to fast for a day, write a letter to a detainee, and make phone calls to Southcom, the Department of Defense, and The White House. Over 250 people have signed up for the rolling fast. Human rights organizations such as Codepink, Reprieve, and Veterans for Peace also organized a rolling fast. Over a thousand folks have signed on to the Codepink fast, including such names as Julian Assange and Deepak Chopra.

Cities from the west, east, and in between began organizing weekly vigils and demonstrations. The London Guantanamo Campaign holds a monthly demo in front of the American Embassy. Latin America and Australia also staged protests. A coalition of over 20 groups who have been working to close Guantanamo came together to form CloseGitmo.net.

On April 14, 2013, The New York times published an op-ed by hunger-striking detainee Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, “Gitmo Is Killing Me.” Witness Against Torture co-founder Matthew Daloisio, who has read almost every article that has come out about Guantanamo since 2005, described it as the most he art-breaking piece he has read.

“I’ve been on a hunger strike since Feb. 10 and have lost well over 30 pounds. I will not eat until they restore my dignity. During one force-feeding the nurse pushed the tube about 18 inches into my stomach, hurting me more than usual, because she was doing things so hastily. The only reason I am still here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to Yemen. This makes no sense. I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one. I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day.”

Numerous letters from Guantanamo have been published. A collection of them can be found atwww.visiitorpictures.com. Shaker Aamer’s wife, Umm Johina, has also published letters through her facebook account.

Obama’s Second Promise

On May 23, 2013, Obama made a second promise to close the prison during a National Defense Speech, using much of the same language as he did during his first promise in 2009.

2009, Protecting Our System and Our Values speech by Obama:

“So going forward, my administration will work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime” to handle such detainees “so that our efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution.”

2013, White House news conference when asked about the hunger strike:

“I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people.”

Since Obama’s second promise, the ban on releasing Yemeni prisoners was lifted, a State Department envoy and Pentagon envoy were appointed, and the Periodic Review Board (PRB) started closed meetings in November 2013. On January 10, 2014, Mahmoud Mujahid, a Yemeni national and “forever prisoner,” was the first to be re-evaluated. He was an alleged former bodyguard of Osama and has been held without charge or evidence since 2002. He was unanimously cleared for release. There is no indication that Mujahid will be be going home soon.

Two Algerians, Nabil Hadjarab and Mutia Sadiq Ahmad Sayyab, were the first to be released from GTMO in September 2013. Two more Algerians, Djamel Ameziane and Belkacem Bensayah, were involuntarily sent back to Algeria. Djamel is a citizen of Algeria and fled the country during the Algerian Civil War where he became a chef in Canada. His family lives in Canada and wishes to return to them.

Summer 2013

By summer, the hunger strike surpassed 100 days. Activists across the country continued to bare hot summer days inside orange jumpsuits and black hoods. A small group of activists went on their own hunger strikes lasting upwards of 100 days. In one case, Andres Thomas Conteris has undergone live tube-feedings in both the U.S. and Latin America.

On June 26, 2013, International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of The White House. Diane Wilson, a solidarity hunger striker on her 57th day of hunger strike, scaled the White House fence in an attempt to deliver a message to the President. She was arrested and charged with unlawful entry and given 90 days’ suspended prison and a $200 fine.

The first Senate Hearing on Guantanamo since 2009 was held on July 24, 2013. In the hearing, ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) suggested that President Obama thinks the United States should take a “holiday” from the war on terror. Cruz and others brought up the perceived threat of detainee recidivism several times during the hearing, which lasted one hour and 45 minutes.

Witnesses at the hearing repeatedly mentioned that the federal court system has effectively tried over 500 terrorism-related cases. Though the figure is technically correct, journalist Trevor Aaronson has shown in his book The Terror Factory that many of those cases were in fact created and managed by the FBI through stings, and that the actual number of legitimate terrorist threats has been far lower.

House Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) also testified before the committee about the need to close Guantanamo. While Smith stated that the Constitution applies fully at the prison because of the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in Boumediene v. Bush, which determined detainees had habeas-corpus rights, this is not entirely accurate.

Winter 2014 

Eleven men have been released from Guantanamo, 8 of those in the past month, December 2013. And so 155 men remain languishing behind prison walls, 77 of whom have been cleared for release since January 2010 by an inter-agency task force established by President Obama. The hunger strike continues despite a media blackout. The last official report of hunger strikers released from the Department of Defense was 15 on December 2, 2013. It has been reported from detainees to attorneys that there are at least 35 men on hunger strike with the numbers increasing daily.

It is now one year since Witness Against Torture last gathered in Washington, DC. Every year we come together to fast and bring attention to the torture inside the prison camp.  According to Guantanamo Bay defense attorney Todd Pierce, the worst form of torture is sleep deprivation. I averaged three hours of sleep per night during the fast and could not tell whether or not I was hungry. I started hallucinating and thinking people were making expressions that weren’t on their faces. I am often asked why I fast and ask myself that question as well–the only answer I can give is that while fasting won’t directly close Guantanamo, it gives me motivation to work harder. The work that we all do might actually close the prison.

What the Obama administration has done in 2013 to close Guantanamo Bay:

– Lifted the ban on releasing Yemeni prisoners

– Appointed Department of Defense and Pentagon envoys

– Released 11 prisoners

What the Obama administration still needs to do to close Guantanamo Bay:

– Release the 77 prisoners cleared for release

– Review the remaining 71 cases

– Return Nabil Hadjarab to Canada

– Stop force-feeding

– Lift the ban on sending prisoners to the US

Reprint from OpEdNews

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