UN condemns force-feeding as Gitmo hunger strike enters 13th week — Clive Stafford Smith fights on for justice

The UN human rights office has condemned force-feeding hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay, calling it ‘torture’ and a breach of international law. At least 21 inmates out of the 100 officially on strike are being force-fed through nasal tubes.

Click here to read more from an article published by Russia Today yesterday.

Shockingly, the majority of the inmates still incarcerated at Guantánamo – 86 of the 166 – have long since been cleared of all terrorism charges by the Obama administration and so are legally entitled to return home. These prisoners continue to languish at Gitmo simply as a consequence of diplomatic and procedural constraints.

Little more than a month ago, I put together a short post drawing attention to the plight of the prisoners who remain trapped at Guantánamo, and to the fact that the majority of those inmates were involved in a mass hunger strike; a protest, which having started on February 6th, was by then already past its fiftieth day. At this time, the officially reported number was only 26 of the inmates, but this figure was totally dismissed by lawyers with access to the prisoners who were already aware that the true number exceeded a hundred.

The official figure has been steadily rising ever since. So by April 13th, according to The Pentagon at least, the hunger strike involved up to 43 prisoners.1 Little more than a week later, on April 22nd, another BBC news report raised the official figure of prisoners on hunger strike to 84.2 And then, by April 24th, that official figure had grown once more “with Gitmo authorities saying only 92 detainees are taking part in the hunger strike”.

On the same day, Russia Today‘s Sara Firth spoke with Clive Stafford Smith, who is currently representing 15 Guantánamo prisoners, including the last remaining British resident Shaker Aamer held indefinitely at the camp. He told them:

I spent my whole life representing people on death rows. I’ve been to most of the death rows of the southern states of America. Guantánamo, for all the nonsense that the military puts out about it, is worse than any death row I’ve ever been to on two different levels. First you’ve got the physical treatment of the prisoners. There is no prison in the US, where you can beat a prisoner and not get sued until next millennium. So it’s worse because no one controls the military. But on the other level it’s far worse psychologically.

The military got upset when we called Guantánamo a gulag, because they don’t like the echoes of the Soviet Union and the old days. To take that analogy a bit further, which I think is totally fair, I don’t think that there was a gulag in the Soviet Union where 52 percent of the prisoners had been told that they were cleared for release but they couldn’t go. That sort of torture is worse than anything. Shaker was told he was cleared in 2007 by Bush, 2009 by Obama and he is still there. And there is no legitimate reason why he can’t come back to London tomorrow.

The Foreign Secretary [William Hague] wrote to me saying that he’d been told by the Americans that Shaker is only cleared to go to Saudi Arabia, not to Britain. But that’s total drivel. There is no other prisoner, I know of 166 people in Guantánamo, who has only been cleared to go to one place. Shaker has never been told he has only been cleared to go to one place. He’s been given two notices neither of which says that. And there is a reason for it. And the reason is that they want to gag him. The US wants him to go to Saudi Arabia on the promise that the Saudis will keep him banged up forever, he won’t be able to talk to the media, he won’t talk to anyone.

So certainly the US would like to keep Shaker quiet because of everything he has seen and everything that’s happened to him. But I’m very much afraid that it’s also the British intelligence services who want to keep him quiet, because they know that Shaker is a witness against them. Going down to Bagram airforce base in January 2002 the British saw him and were legally complicit in his torture there. But also Shaker saw Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi being tortured and this is the most embarrassing example America has ever had. So the last thing that the British or Americans want to come out of the Guantánamo Bay is Shaker Aamer, who can shed some lights on the torture that led to catastrophic mistakes. […]

He was one of the first five prisoners held by the Americans in Bagram and he was taken there just before New Year 2001. Al-Libi had just been taken and the Americans at the time thought that he was a big Al-Qaeda person, which he wasn’t even a member of. The Americans were abusing him to try to get him to make statements. Shaker was taken from the cage, where he was held, into the room where al-Libi was being abused. He saw the people who were there, he can identify some of those people. The British were present in Bagram at that time. And he can tell you a whole lot about what was going on in terms of abuse of al-Libi. Now al-Libi can’t speak for himself, because he was sent back to Libya, where he according to the Libyans died or according to the other people was murdered. One extraordinary embarrassing witness has disappeared and Shaker is one of the few people that remain.

Click here to read a full transcript or to watch the interview on the Russia Today website.

Click here to follow RT’s day-by-day timeline of the Gitmo hunger strike.

*

Clive Stafford Smith is a person I have greatly admired for many years. He had initially trained to be a journalist, but then, following a summer spent meeting death row inmates — an experience that reinforced his original abhorrence of capital punishment — he came to the dramatic conclusion that he might achieve more by legally defending them instead of simply writing about them. Following this revelation, he retrained in law and set up his own legal practice.

During the decades since, Stafford Smith, who became founder and director of Reprieve, has represented more than 300 prisoners facing the death penalty in the southern United States. And then, when the preposterous “War on Terror” was launched and the hooded men in orange boiler suits began to be unloaded and dumped into the cages at Guantánamo without due process and their human rights violated, Stafford Smith turned his attention to helping these “enemy combatants” – the majority of whom, he quickly realised, were not merely being detained without charge, but entirely innocent of any involvement in terrorist activities. Up to now, he has helped secure the release of 65 Guantánamo Bay prisoners as well as others across the world who have been detained and tortured in black prisons such as Bagram Theatre Internment Facility, Afghanistan.

Here is Clive Stafford Smith speaking at a recent conference and sat alongside some of the prisoners he has helped to release, including Sudanese journalist Sami al-Hajj who was picked up in Afghanistan by the Pakistani army whilst on assignment with Al Jazeera, and ended up being held in Guantánamo without charge for more than six years.

The very epitome of the eternal optimist, it seems that almost nothing can dull Stafford Smith’s enthusiasm and sense of humour, or dent his belief that we will eventually reach a better future. He finishes on a characteristically upbeat point saying “We’re going to win this battle, it’s just a matter of when”:

On January 20th 2010, just one year after Obama’s inauguration, Clive Stafford Smith had been invited to speak at the Frontline Club with regards to the situation at Guantánamo Bay as well as the detention facilities at Bagram and Abu Ghraib. The proceedings were moderated by BBC correspondent Jon Manel.

One of the underlying issues back then was to what extent had Obama helped in propelling the United States away from the Bush administration’s use of torture and extraordinary rendition? In my view, and certainly with hindsight, Clive Stafford Smith is rather too generous when it comes to Obama’s record, but overall what he had to say was as insightful as ever:

1 From an article entitled “Clashes at Guantánamo over hunger strike prisoners” published by BBC news on April 13, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22140663

2 From an article entitled “Over half of Guantánamo Bay’s detainees join hunger strike” written by Tom Santorelli, published by BBC news on April 22, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22249470

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