Hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay are known to have engaged in hunger strikes at the prison in protest of conditions and their prolonged confinement without trial. A recent report from Jason Leopold of Truthout.org details how, as of March, detainees continue to participate in hunger strikes with the hope that the conditions of their detention will improve or so they will no longer have their basic due process rights violated.
Detainees first began to engage in hunger strikes in 2002. The hunger strikes had a definite impact. The strikes from 2002 to 2005 effectively changed the dynamics in the prison. Former detainee Binyam Mohamed said there was no law and a colonel was saying, “’I do what I like’ but after the hunger strike – the big hunger strike of 2005 – they actually started implementing some kind of law that we knew about.” But, come 2006, the prison began to force feed detainees that were striking and would force tubes down detainees’ throats in a manner that successfully convinced many of the detainees to end their resistance.
There are a number of detainees that are known to have engaged in hunger striking (thanks to the great investigative journalism of Andy Worthington). Some known to have engaged in strikes are: Binyam Mohamed, Sami al-Hajj, Mohammed al-Amin, Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, Yasser Talal Zahrani, Saber Lahmer, Omar Khadr, Abdul Rahman Shalabi, Tarek Baada, Ahmed Zuhair, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, Ali Al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi, and Shaker Aamer. With the release of the Guantanamo Files by WikiLeaks, more details on hunger striking in the military prison can be gleaned.
In order to further understand the details in the “Guantanamo Files,” it is important to consider the Standard Operating Procedure for handling hunger strikes was outlined in a document titled, “Voluntary and Voluntary Total Fasting and Re-Feeding.”
As of August 11, 2005, this was JTF GTMO’s policy on hunger strikes:
Joint Task Force (JTF)-GTMO policy is to avert death from hunger strikes and from failure to drink as well as to monitor the health status of detainees who are fasting voluntarily. Every attempt will be made to allow detainees to remain autonomous up to the point where failure to eat or drink might threaten their life or health. The Detention Hospital (DH) is responsible for providing health care monitoring and medical assistance as clinically indicated for detainees who are voluntarily fasting or on a hunger strike. The Officer in Charge (OIC) of the DH will ensure that the appropriate standards of care for the medical and administrative management of fasting detainees are adhered to. The DH OIC will do everything within his/her mean to monitor and protect the health and welfare of hunger striking detainees including involuntary intravenous hydration and/or enteral tube feeding if necessary. DH medical personnel will make every effort to obtain consent from a voluntary faster for treatment
What’s the distinction between a voluntary faster and a hunger striker?
Voluntary fasting (VF) “occurs when a detainee communicates his intent to JTF-GTMO personnel to undergo a period of fasting for a specific purpose, has had no solid food intake for a period of 72 hours (9 consecutive meals), but is taking adequate liquids/fluids by mouth.” And, hunger striking involves a “detainee who communicates his intent to JTF-GTMO personnel to undergo a period of voluntary or total voluntary fasting as a form of protest or to demand attention from authorities.”
A further distinction appears in the released reports. For example, Tarek Baada, who is one of the few detainees known to have engaged in a long-term hunger strike, is not regarded as hunger striker by JTF GTMO. The euphemism appropriated to Baada is voluntary total faster. Under “Detainee’s Conduct” in his assessment report, it reads, “He is currently in voluntary total fast status since 07 January 2007, refusing 1,065 consecutive meals. In 2006, he had a total of nine Reports of Disciplinary Infraction and fourteen in 2007.”
Voluntary total fasting (VTF) “occurs when a detainee communicates his intent to JTF-GTMO personnel to undergo a period of fasting for a specific purpose and has not taken any solids or liquids for a period of more than 48 hours.
The JTF GTMO Surgeon, along with the DH medical staff the Commander Joint Detention Group (JDG), and the Commander, Joint Intelligence Group (JIG), in order to make a “hunger striker” designation, must prove intent, purpose and behavior, according to JTF GTMO. Religious fasting, severe depression with suicidal intent manifested by not eating or drinking are two examples where a detainee would not be designated a hunger striker but rather a voluntary faster or voluntary total faster.
The designations, which appear in some of the released Guantanamo Files, all appear designed to lower the number of people who can be considered as people who are resisting authority. It appears to be a divide-and-conquer strategy. By deciding from the top that which detainees were part of a hunger strike, it gives them the ability to lower the detainees’ fortitude and courage in keeping a strike going in the prison.
The JTF-GTMO Surgeon is only to remove “a detainee from the Hunger Striker list. Detainees are not to be removed from the list until a “DH medical officer has evaluated him and has determined that he is no longer on a VF, VTF or hunger strike.” This clearly demonstrates the prison staff has aimed to assert top-down authority by deciding who is and who is not striking. Detainees who claim to be striking will have to be approved for a list in order to strike. Thus, it appears some detainees could be refused the “right” to engage in a hunger strike.
In July 2007, then-outgoing commanding officer of the Naval Station Guantanamo Hospital and head of the JTF JMG, Navy Captain Ronald L. Sollock, addressed the care of his team of medical professionals, which the prison had typically provided to the striking population. He said, “Involuntary feeding is not used to break the hunger strike…we are using sound medical indicators when necessary to preserve the life and health of detainees. We do not let the detainees get to the point of losing consciousness or becoming comatose to intervene. We will intervene to preserve their health and life before that time.”
But, as noted in the cited release, military commanders consider hunger striking to be a tactic that “al Qaeda recruits” are encouraged to use to “attract media attention to their detention.” So, should one actually believe commanders who assert force-feeding or involuntary feeding of detainees has not been the military prison’s way of stifling resistance from detainees, who seek to assert themselves and gain rights in the prison along with greater access to legal counsel?
It appears in some instances detainees were questioned about hunger strikes during their interrogation. Shakir Abd Al Rahim Muhammad Aamer [ISN:239] allegedly stated “the death of a detainee at JTF-GTMO would ‘open the eyes of the world and result in the closure of the base.’” With regards to him, Humud Dakhil Humud Sa’id Al-jad’an allegedly stated “the primary reason the JTF-GTMO detainees went on the hunger strike was because detainee’s lawyer told them exactly what they needed to do.” Abd al-Rahim Abdul Raza Janko allegedly said of Aamer he would pass information to other detainees who came to Camp Echo for Habeas visits.”
All of the above details on Aamer’s hunger striking can be found under the line, “Detainee has continued to participate in activities against the US,” indicating hunger strikes are a kind of militant tactic to the staff.
Abd Al Khaliq Ahmed Salih Al Baydani [ISN:553] allegedly wrote in a letter to Bader Al Bakri Al Samiri [ISN:274] that Al Samiri’s “hunger striking and violent fights with the guards” were “wonderful.” An analyst notes the detainee addressed the letter to Al Samiri’s “Paternal Uncle,” which means the letter likely went to Al Samiri’s relatives in Saudi Arabia. Whether it came back to the prison from a relative for Al Samiri to read is unclear.
Hani Saiid Mohammad Al Khalif [ISN:438] allegedly helped to train other detainees at JTF-GTMO and served in a “leadership role” among detainees. The assessment suggests Al Khalif taught Adel Zanel Abd al-Mahsenal-Zanrel [ISN:568] “military tactics” like “how to use RPGs.” Al-Mahsenel-Zanrel and Adel Fattough Ali Algazzar alleged Al Khalif was an “emir.” He also suggested Al Khalif had encouraged others to participate in hunger strikes. (But, an “analyst” notes no other evidence Al Khalif is “serving in a leadership role” in the prison. Interestingly, Algazzar is one of a number of detainees whom JTF GTMO and the Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF) could not agree on when assessing whether Algazzar posed a risk.)
Mahmoud Omar Muhammad Bin Atef [ISN:202] In a report filed on December 28, 2007, Atef is alleged to be a “key leader for 2007 detainee unrest in his cell block through the attempted organization for “2007 detainee unrest in his cell block through attempted organization of a hunger strike and surveillance against the guard force.” He reportedly stated, in a demonstration of support for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s attacks on US forces, “All Americans shall die because these were the rules of Allah,” and claimed upon release he would “research guard force personnel’s names and faces on the internet and sneak into their homes to cut their throats like sheep.”
Looking at the reports, it appears many of the detainees that engaged in hunger strikes have one thing in common: they were labeled a “HIGH threat from a detention perspective” in their reports.
It is also worth noting that sometimes the detainee reports mention hunger striking under the “Health” section. Sometimes it is mentioned under the “Detainee’s Conduct” section, indicating that hunger striking has been considered a disciplinary problem. And, in some cases, detainees that were known to have engaged in hunger striking had no details on their prison resistance recorded in their report at all.
For example, Abdul Rahman Shalabi, who the Associated Press reported in 2010 was now Guantanamo’s longest-term hunger striker, had been engaging in hunger striking in the months before the date of his detainee assessment report. By then, he was being strapped down into a padded restraint chair and then force-fed with a flexible feeding tube that was inserted through his nose and throat. Yet, while he is listed as a “HIGH” threat from a detention perspective, there are no details on his engagement in hunger striking and in the “Health” section there is nothing on his hunger striking or his force-feeding.
Reprieve, an organizations based in the United Kingdom that “uses the law to enforce human rights of prisoners from death row to Guantanamo Bay” tracked Shalabi. In a news story published on their website on November 11, 2009, Andrew Wander reported independent doctors who had evaluated Shalabi said “the insertion of the [feeding] tube has done permanent damage to his nose and throat, making inserting new feeding tubes difficult and stopping him from receiving the calories he needs.”
In March 2009, his weight had dropped to “107 pounds, 30 percent below his ideal body weight and at the threshold of major organ failure.” Dr. Emily Keram, a psychiatrist, concluded Shalabi exhibited symptoms and disorders that likely were a result of coercive interrogations and other mistreatment. And, she said records indicated he had been “subjected to Forced Cell Extraction in connection with his feeding multiple times per day through the months of January and February “ in 2009.
As Shalabi wrote in a letter, “I am a human who is being treated like an animal.”
The following is a list of detainees whose hunger strikes are mentioned in the released files:
-Zaid Muhammad Sa’ad Al Husayn [ISN:50]: In his report filed on December 5, 2005, Al Husayn is described to be in good health and noted to have gone on hunger strike in August 2005.
-Yasser T Al Zahrani [ISN:93]: In his report filed on March 20, 2006, Al Zahrani is said in the “Health” section to have a “history of rheumatoid arthritis.” He is said to have “a history of dehydration due to hunger strike treated with intravenous fluids.” It is noted in the “Detainee’s Conduct” section, “On 11 July 2005, detainee told a guard that he would use a knife to cut his stomach open, cut his face off, and then drink his blood, smiling and laughing as he said it. The detainee was a major participant in the voluntary total fast of 2005-2006.” [Note: Al Zahrani is one of the detainees known to have died in the Guantanamo prison.]
-Mubarak Hussain Bin Abul Hashem [ISN:151]:In his report filed on March 25, 2005, under the “Health” section, it is mentioned that Hashem went on a hunger strike on time.
-Fayiz Ahmad Yahia [ISN:153]: In his report filed on April 14, 2008, Yahia is noted to be “on a list of high-risk detainees from a health perspective.” He has significant health problems, “a history of a Hunger Strike,” along with a G6PD deficiency. [Interestingly, the file indicates JTF-GTMO does not know why he was transferred to Guantanamo.]
-Majid Abdallah Husayn Muhammad Al Samluli Al Harbi [ISN:158]: In his report filed on July 7, 2006, it is noted under “Detainee’s Conduct” that on December 15, 2003, Al Harbi “spat in the face of the medical officer who was inserting a feeding tube into him.”
Abdullah Kamel Abudallah Kamel [ISN-228]: In his report filed on December 27, 2005, Kamel is said to have a BMI on February 11, 2002, of 20%. It is noted he went on hunger strike in October 2002 and September 2005.
-Mohammed Abd Al Al Qadir [ISN:284]: In his report filed on July 212, 2004, under the “Health” section, Al Qadir is said to have “a history of unidentified left- side weakness, hunger striking, and acid reflux disease.”
-Ahmed Bin Saleh Belbacha [ISN:290]: In his report filed on January 15, 2006, under “Health” it is noted that Belbacha has “latent TB and is noncompliant with treatment.” He reportedly went on hunger striked in November 2002 and August 2005. Under “Detainee’s Conduct,” it is noted that Belbacha was a “major participant in the voluntary total fast, missing over a hundred meals.” Apparently, on November 24, 2005, he “declared a voluntary total fast. However, his fast lasted less than two hours as [he] later claimed that guards had helped him so he would eat.” [Unclear what is meant by “helped him.”]
-Wasim [ISN:338]: In his report filed on February 17, 2006, it is noted he “has a history of bilateral pterygium” and “went on a hunger strike in September 2002.”
-Sami Mohy El Din Muhammed Al Hajj [ISN:345]: In his report filed on April 4, 2008, the cameraman for al Jazeera that was detained is noted in the “Detainee’s Conduct” section to be overall “compliant and rarely hostile to the guard force and staff, although he still carries on with a long-term hunger strike.”
-Muhammad Ali Abdallah Muhammad Bwazir [ISN:440]: In his report, which was filed on October 27, 2008, Bwazir’s hunger striking is mentioned in the “Executive summary, worth reading in full:
If released without rehabilitation, close supervision, and means to successfully reintegrate into his society as a law-abiding citizen, it is assessed detainee would probably seek out prior associates and reengage in hostilities and extremist support activities at home and abroad. Since transfer to JTF-GTMO, detainee continues to demonstrate his commitment to extremist activities within the camp. Detainee volunteered to be a suicide operative and actively participates in the hunger strikes. Detainee has been mostly non-compliant with guard force personnel. He has responded cooperatively during debriefs in the past, but currently withholds information of intelligence value.
-Abdul Rahman Mohammed Hussein Khowlan [ISN:513]: In his report filed on March 31, 2006, Khowlan is said to be a “former hunger striker.”
-Mamdouh Ahmed Habib [ISN:661]: In his report filed on August 6, 2004, it is noted that Habib has “a history of depression and behavioral disorders, benign prostatic hypertrophy, hunger striking, and had a knee surgery performed.”
-Emad Abdallah Hassan [ISN:680]: In his report filed on October 31, 2008, it is described in the “Health” section that he is a “high-risk detainee” from a health perspective. He is “a repeated hunger striker with subsequent complications and has a history of chronic pancreatitis for which he is receiving medication.”
-Muhammad Abdallah Taha Moaten [ISN:684]: In his report filed on April 16, 2008, Moaten is described in the “Health” section as a “high-risk detainee” from a health perspective. He has “major depression.” He has a “history of a Hunger Strike.” It is noted that “behavioral health” is following him.
-Allah Muhammed Saleem [ISN:716]: In his report filed on July 2, 2004, under he is noted to have been a hunger striker in the “Health” section.
-Abdul Al Zaher [ISN:753]: In his report filed on November 19, 2008, he is said to have “a history of malaria prior to detainment, chronic lower back pain, sciatica, and hunger striking not requiring enteral feeding. Additionally, he has a history of Major Depressive Episode currently in full remission that is followed by the Behavior Health Unit routinely.”
-Bisher al-Rawi [ISN:906]: In his report filed on October 19, 2005, under “Health,” the reports indicate no “ongoing medical conditions” and that “he went on a hunger strike in August and September 2005.”.
Mohabet Khan [ISN:909]: In his report filed on June 7, 2005, Khan is noted to have over the past six months failed to return to the bay when asked, saluted another detainee, engaged in a short-lived hunger strike (one day on March 2, 2005), and said to have been found “unresponsive breathing with his eyes open.” He also is noted to have asked to be moved because he was not getting along with other detainees.
Husayn Salim Muhammad Al Matari Yafai [ISN:1015]: In his report filed on January 14, 2009, he is said to be “uncooperative indicating continuing support to extremism.” His report alleges he “uses counter-interrogation techniques, expressed he posed a threat to his debriefer, and threatened to kill US personnel at JTF-GTMO.” And, he prayed, “God help us overcome those infidels, God help the ones [hunger] striking God may curse those oppressors,” on December 25, 2008. [Yafai is a “probable recidivist candidate.”]
For the latest on the hunger strikes at Guantanamo, follow the reporting of Jason Leopold at Truthout or the work of Andy Worthington.