A Former IRA Hunger Striker Talks About the Guantanamo Hunger Strikers
Gerard Hodgins. (Photo courtesy of Gerard Hodgins)
The hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay has moved beyond its 160th day. Prisoners are refusing to eat in protest against conditions in the detainment camp, the fact that the majority of them haven't even been charged with a crime – despite being held there for years – and because 86 prisoners have been cleared for release but are still being held without any reasonable explanation.
To make matters worse, there have been reports of guards punishing and humiliating strikers, and officials have been accused of using the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to massage hunger strike numbers. Oh, and everyone's seen that incredibly distressing video of Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) being force-fed – that's what guards are currently inflicting upon more than 40 hunger strikers in the camp. (Except – without wishing to diminish the power of Bey and Asif Kapadia's film – it's for two hours twice a day in a Cuban prison camp rather than for four minutes in a video directed by a Bafta-winning director).
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has yet to carry out his six-year-old campaign promise to close the prison.
Gerard Hodgins knows first-hand about self-starvation as a form of political protest. Hodgins, a former member of the Provisional IRA, was on the same hunger strike in Maze prison that killed Bobby Sands in 1981. He went for 20 days without food in the Northern Irish prison before the IRA called off the protest. I spoke to him about the politics of starvation and if there are any similarities between present-day Guantanamo and HMP Maze during the 1970s and 80s.
A Bobby Sands mural in Belfast. (Photo via)
VICE: Do you see parallels between the situation in Guantanamo Bay and the situation you were involved with in 1981?
Hodgins: I can, in a way, if you leave the politics and ideology out of it. Our hunger strike was borne out of desperation. We had spent five years in complete and total isolation, locked up 24 hours a day. During those five years our political representatives had been trying to make a case for the reforms within the prison and, at the end of the process, it wasn't coming – the brutality was getting worse. We were trying to bring the H Block to an end. My understanding with the Guantanamo prisoners is that at least 50 percent have been cleared for release. In other words, they’re not a threat to the United States or anyone else – yet they’re still being held.
I’d imagine those people have absolutely no hope. They’ve been kidnapped from their homes halfway around the world, transported to the end of Cuba and are being kept in conditions that are pretty brutal. It’s my understanding that prisoners have died or been killed in Guantanamo, depending on what slant you believe. So the hunger strike that they’re engaged in at the moment is also borne out of desperation. They’ve been left there to rot and be the plaything for brutal Marines.
Are there any similarities between the treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners being held without a trial and some of the so-called Diplock courts [courts without juries, just a single judge] used to contain the IRA?
There would be similarities. There’s a guy called Frank Kitson – he’s a British strategist – who was posted here [Northern Ireland] and he wrote a bit of a textbook for army commanders. Kitson talked about the need for all arms of the state to be utilised in the fight against insurgents and subversives, and that included the law. So the law here was adulterated. Due process and the right to silence were abandoned, and torture evidence was admissible. So there would be similarities. The British actually have a much more refined way of doing it.
Shaker Aamer, a British Guantanamo hunger striker who was cleared for release five years ago but remains imprisoned today.
Yeah, they actually put you through a court.
Yeah. That’s not even happening with a lot of the people in Guantanamo. But yeah, they would put us through a Diplock court so they could say, “These guys went through a court.” You could be standing in front of a Diplock judge, battered and bruised from top to bottom, and a policeman would say, “He beat himself up to create propaganda against the government.” And the judge [again, there was no jury] would accept that and you’d be sentenced to 20 to 25 years.
What do you think these men in Guantanamo will be going through right now?
Physically, they’re going to be very, very weak. After two weeks you start to feel yourself losing energy – you’ll have blackouts if you get up too quick. Mentally, the very fact that they're on hunger strike says a lot. Mentally, I believe they are in a very, very strong, determined place where they have themselves conditioned: either I’m getting out of this place alive or I’m going out of this place dead.
How does Obama's handling of the situation compare with Thatcher's handling of the Troubles in the 80s?
I was disappointed with Obama when he was first elected; one of his campaign promises was to close Guantanamo. He reneged on that and the conditions have got worse. So, in a way, he could come across as a Margaret Thatcher-type character, although he doesn’t come across as being as personally involved as Thatcher was towards us. Nevertheless, President Obama is the president and there’s that famous saying, “The buck stops here.” He made a promise and reneged on it. And rather than try to go a sort of liberal way about restoring America’s moral authority in the world, I think he’s made a colossal mistake. It’s appalling what he’s doing. I don’t see him being any different from George W Bush in pursuing this so-called War on Terror. It’s not really a war on terror. It’s a war of terror being imposed upon defenceless people.
Obama promising to close Guantanamo Bay the year he was elected.
Your hunger strike is often cited as being a recruitment boon for the IRA. Do you think the Guantanamo hunger strikes will have a similar effect internationally? Is there going to be anything akin to a Bobby Sands effect?
Almost certainly. If the streams of bodies start coming out of Guantanamo and the media latches onto it and it starts to become the issue, it can’t not create a wave of anti-Americanism throughout the world. Particularly in the Middle East, but I’d imagine also Latin America, which has extensive experience with American involvement with right-wing dictatorships.
Tell me what hunger strikes can actually accomplish. Since this hunger strike began, Obama has rehashed the idea of closing the prison. Do you think that'll happen?
I don’t know if he’s playing to the gallery or not. I’m conscious that he said that he’s going to close Guantanamo before. I don’t think there’s any practical reason why he couldn’t. I mean, the people who are cleared for release, release them. And those who aren’t cleared for release, he doesn’t have to keep them in Guantanamo. Put them into the judicial system through due process. If there’s evidence against them, bring it against them, have the trial. But the way they’re held in Guantanamo, to me it’s an affront to natural justice. It’s a kind of internment.
If these guys survive the hunger strike, what can they expect in terms of any long-term effects of the experience?
I’m fixated in my head in 1981. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. Physically, I don’t have any longer term effects. But it’s an experience that, once you go through it, you can’t escape from. It’ll always be with you.
Follow Danny on Twitter: @DMacCash
More stories about Guantanamo: