The utterly invaluable Charlie Savage is still on the case, thanks to almighty blog, riding herd on all the wounds to democracy we self-inflicted in the aftermath of The Day That Changed Everything. This time, he’s here to tell us about the explosion in the number of hunger strikes going on at our human penal factory-farm down in Cuba.
A hunger strike by detainees who have been held for years without trial at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has grown to involve at least 25 prisoners, the Defense Department disclosed on Wednesday. That number includes eight who are being force-fed a nutritional supplement through a hose snaked into their nose while they are restrained in a chair.
A lot of what we’ve done in our “war” on terror — including extrajudicial assassination, drumhead tribunals, and now this classically brutal response to a hunger strike, which is an act of dedicated non-violent resistance — we learned from the lessons taught by the British in Ireland, and especially those taught by Mrs. Thatcher, who allowed an elected member of Parliament to starve himself to death rather than let him wear the clothes he wanted to wear. Here, it appears, the precipitating problem is a lack of respect.
The origins of the hunger strike are disputed. David H. Remes, a lawyer for several Yemeni detainees who were cleared for repatriation years ago but remain imprisoned because of poor security conditions in Yemen, said he was recently told by clients that prison officials had started searching Korans, which inmates considered to be religious desecration, in a way they had not done since 2006. A group of lawyers representing detainees, including Mr. Remes, sent letters on March 4and March 14 to military officials raising alarm about the strike and asking for attention to alleviate its underlying causes, citing the purported Koran searches and a wider set of “regressive practices at the prison taking place in recent months, which our clients have described as a return to an older regime at Guantánamo that was widely identified with the mistreatment of detainees.” Captain Durand, however, said that there had been no change to longstanding procedures for searching the Korans, in which prison translators, who are Muslims, touch the book. In a lengthy statement, he argued that the detainees were coordinating to “fabricate” claims of personal or Koran abuse as a tactic for garnering news media attention.
I don’t blame Durand. He’s been put in an impossible position by a feckless administration policy and a towering act of cowardice by the Congress, which literally made any realistic attempt by the president to close that prison illegal. The result has been to turn it into an engine of hopelessness that is most obvious to the prisoners there, and to the people who have been giving the job of running the place.
In phone interviews, Mr. Remes and Captain Durand largely agreed, however, that a significant underlying condition for the recent unrest was the collapse of hopes that the United States government would at some point let them go. “I think there was great hope that there would be fresh movement, and there was at the beginning” of the Obama administration four years ago, Captain Durand said. “But the movement in the last year is not encouraging. I don’t dispute that there is frustration over that.”
What I don’t understand is why, political considerations aside, the place can’t be run as humanely as possible. Again, Lindsey Graham’s attacks of the vapors aside, why can’t it be converted into the equivalent of a minimum-, or medium-security facility? If there’s nothing we can do about the existence of this blight, then the least we can do is try to contain it.
Charlie has been a working journalist since 1976. He is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America. He lives near Boston with his wife but no longer his three children.
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