50 days and counting: mass hunger strike at Guantánamo is being ignored and downplayed

It is a frankly staggering but barely reported fact that the majority of prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay – 86 of the 166 – have actually been cleared by the Obama administration to leave. Indeed, only a tiny fraction of the remaining “detainees” – as few as 34 – are ever likely to be charged by the US government. Yet, in spite of this, the more than fifty percent being held without any charge against them, still see little or no prospect of release after more than a decade of false imprisonment.

To highlight their continuing plight some of these inmates (and I will return to numbers in a moment) decided to go on hunger strike. A mass protest that started on February 6th and which is now into its eighth week. So far, however, the mainstream media has mostly ignored their protest altogether, with only Russia Today consistently reporting on the deteriorating situation at Guantánamo.

Democracy Now! also featured a report just over a fortnight ago on Wednesday March 13th, and this is what Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights as well as counsel for Ghaleb Al-Bihani, one of the hunger strikers, told us back then:

He [Ghaleb Al-Bihani] said what we’ve heard from every other detainee who has communicated with his lawyer since February, which is that there is a large-scale hunger strike in Camp 6, which is the largest of the facilities at Guantánamo. That prison holds about 130 men. He said that almost everyone, except for a few who are sick and elderly, are on strike.

He himself had lost over 20 pounds. He is a diabetic. His blood glucose levels are fluctuating wildly. He told me that medical staff at Guantánamo have told him his life is in danger. And he and others want us to get the word out about this.

At this time, the official version was that “only five or six” prisoners were involved in the hunger strike, but here’s Pardiss Kebriaei again:

They have downplayed the scale of the strikes and have said that there are only a handful on strike and only a handful being tube-fed. It may be a matter of semantics: the way that Guantánamo authorities define people on hunger strike is largely discretionary.

But what we have heard from every habeas counsel who has been down to the base or communicated with their clients since February is the same, which is that there is a large-scale strike, men are refusing food.

Click here to read a complete transcript or to watch the interview on the Democracy Now! website.

And here’s a more recent Russia Today article from Monday [March 25th]:

US officials initially denied that a strike was taking place at all.

“As you recall, they started off by saying, ‘no one is on hunger strike, just five or six people who have been on the hunger strike for many years’. Then that figure was revised up to 14 and now we are seeing the figure steadily increasing, but to nowhere near the extent that the prisoners’ lawyers are talking about,” investigative journalist and author of ‘The Guantanamo Files’ Andy Worthington told RT.

Currently the officially-acknowledged number of Gitmo detainees on hunger strike has reached 26 people, according to the US Defense Department. Eight of them are being force-fed, which means they are administered food in the form of a nutritional supplement through a hose snaked into their nose while they are restrained in a chair.1

Click here to read more from the same Russia Today report or to watch video of the report.

Hidden away on the BBC website, you can also find this report from yesterday:

The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is urgently sending a doctor to Guantanamo Bay because of a growing hunger strike among detainees.

The ICRC says the doctor and another group member are flying to Guantanamo a week earlier than planned “because of the current tensions” there.2

The same BBC article also reports that officially 31 of the 166 prisoners are now on hunger strike. The official figures rising as news of the hunger strike slowly leaks out… but why so slowly. Here are the thoughts of outspoken British MP George Galloway talking on Russia Today (and published in the same article):

“Nobody else is talking about this subject. If this were happening in Russia, if people disappeared into an illegal black hole in Russia and were facing indefinite incarceration, without trial, without charge and without access of attorneys, we’d never hear the end of it. The Western media would be full of it. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, they’d be screaming from the rooftops of Westminster.

But because this is an American crime, they’re allowed to get away with it. Because the people that control the so-called mainstream media are fully on side with the agenda of the Obama administration.”

Whatever you may think about Galloway, it is hard to deny the truth of much that he has to say. And the fact that during the past fifty days, our own media outlets have consistently declined to draw any serious attention to this important story ought to be a cause for concern for all of us.

Incidentally, I happen to be on the emailing lists of both Amnesty International and Avaaz and neither organisation has sent any news about the mass hunger strike taking place at Guantánamo, let alone any campaigns calling for action to be taken. Shame on both organisations.

*

The following is a Russia Today report from January last year, marking the tenth anniversary of the opening of Gitmo at Guantánamo Bay:

1 From an article entitled “’Nobody else talking about this’: Gitmo inmate hunger strike goes on” published by Russia Today on March 25, 2013. http://rt.com/news/guantanamo-hunger-strike-media-786/

2 From a BBC new report entitled “Guantanamo hunger strike prompts urgent Red Cross visit” published on Mnarch 27, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-21958255

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