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Why Does It Take Going Hungry To Go Free?

Close Guantanamo co-founder Andy Worthington explains the Gitmo hunger strike.
June 2, 2013, 6:00pm

Image: Alan Ireland

In April, The New York Times published an unclassified telephone call between Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay and his lawyers. It began, "One man here weighs just 77 pounds. Another, 98. Last thing I knew, I weighed 132, but that was a month ago." Samir and his fellow hunger strikers have reinvigorated the debate about Gitmo and directed a spotlight on President Obama, the man who vowed to shut the prison down upon gaining power.

"I could have been home years ago—no one seriously thinks I am a threat—but still I am here," said Samir. "Years ago the military said I was a 'guard' for Osama bin Laden, but this was nonsense, like something out of the American movies I used to watch. They don’t even seem to believe it anymore. But they don’t seem to care how long I sit here, either."

I caught up with Andy Worthington, a freelance investigative journalist and co-founder of the "Close Guantanamo" campaign, to ask him a few questions about the hunger strike's potential and the future of the facility. Worthington has been working tirelessly to reveal the truth about Gitmo since the jail opened and his work is crucial to anyone who aims to understand the situation.

Before we get to the hunger strike, I wonder if you could say a bit about the 86 men who were cleared for release from Gitmo. How long ago was their innocence established and why are they still there?

The decision that it was not in America's interests to continue holding the 86 men—out of 166 in total who are still held—was made by the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after he took office in January 2009. When, of course, he also promised to close Guantanamo within a year.

The task force—comprising around 60 career officials from the major government departments and the intelligence agencies—cleared the men for release, or, as they put it, approved them for transfer after deliberations that lasted throughout 2009. Their final report was published in January 2010.

The task force members did not conclude that these men were innocent, in part because innocence and guilt are difficult to establish in the cases of the men at Guantanamo, who were rounded up in a generally chaotic manner. In 80 to 90 percent of cases, they were handed over by America's Afghan and Pakistani allies at a time when generous bounty payments were widespread.

Another problem with "innocence" is that lawyers would undoubtedly tell officials not to admit that any mistakes were made to avoid compensation claims.

A third problem is that Guantanamo, from the beginning, was a place where a handful of alleged terrorists and two large groups making up the majority of the prisoners—Taliban foot soldiers on the one hand and civilians on the other (humanitarian aid workers, missionaries, teachers, economic migrants, businessmen)—were all held as "enemy combatants," with no attempt to distinguish between terrorists (criminals), soldiers, and civilians caught up in the fog of war.

Of the 86 men, 56 were recommended for immediate release, and half of these men were Yemenis. Thirty others, also Yemenis, were recommended for what the task force called "conditional detention," dependent on a perceived improvement to the security situation in Yemen. The task force gave no clue as to how this should be decided.

The men are still held in part because President Obama imposed a ban on releasing cleared Yemenis after the failed bomb plot of Christmas Day 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian recruited in Yemen, retired and failed to blow up a plane bound for Detroit. After this, Congress also imposed conditions that appear to be impossible to overcome—to release a prisoner, the defense secretary must certify to Congress that this individual will be unable to take up arms against the US in the future.

In the legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act, there is a waiver that the president can use to bypass Congress and release prisoners if he thinks it is “in the national security interests of the United States.” He has not done so yet. Now is the time to do it.

The hunger strike started in response to a shift in the behavior of the prison guards. Could you explain that shift and what the strike aimed to accomplish?

The prisoners responded to an aggressive new policy of searching their cells back in February, which involved having their possessions seized, including their private correspondence with their families and with their lawyers, and also involved manhandling their copies of the Koran. That provoked the hunger strike, but it soon became a vehicle for their despair at being held forever—even those cleared for release—as they felt (with unerring accuracy, I have to say) that they had been abandoned by all three branches of the US government.

The president provided such an eloquent explanation of why Guantanamo is so abhorrent an institution that I don't believe it will be possible for him to drop it again ...

How does the United States government's assessment of the hunger strike differ from the prisoners' own claims?

The authorities began by refusing to acknowledge it at all, claiming that there were just five or six long-term hunger strikers. As the word got out via lawyers and it became clear that blanket denials would not work, the authorities gradually began to accept that there was a hunger strike. Their estimates of the numbers involved have gradually crept up over the weeks to reach a total of 100 of the 166 men still held, although the prisoners have always claimed that the true total is around 130.

The consistent liberal defense of Obama's inability to follow through on his promise to close the prison is that the Congress refuses to play ball. What do you make of this analysis? Is there any reason we should feel optimistic based on his recent remarks?

In a word, no. Congress is to blame, of course, for initially preventing the president from bringing the prisoners to a facility on the US mainland, either for continued detention or for trials, and then for imposing restrictions on the release of prisoners that, I believe, cannot be met.

However, President Obama imposed the ban on releasing the Yemenis who make up two-thirds of the cleared prisoners, and he has also, to date, refused to use the waiver in the NDAA to release prisoners if Congress doesn't play ball. He needs to stop pretending it's not his problem, and one way to do this—in addition to using the waiver—would be to appoint a senior official to deal specifically with the closure of the prison.

Of the hunger strike, Kevin Gosztola recently wrote, "If anything is going to truly disrupt the status quo and the president’s record of inaction and shut down this hellhole established by the national security state, it will be this hunger strike." If a domestic political solution to the problem is dead, do you believe this hunger strike has the ability to kickoff a worldwide solidarity movement that, finally, leads to Gitmo's demise?

I believe the administration is susceptible to international criticism, so I hope that, along with the sustained criticism from internal critics in the liberal media, it will be enough. In addition, behind the scenes there are, I am sure, splits in the administration regarding what is right and what is politically safe, which those calling for the closure of Guantanamo must continue to exploit.

Ironically, the president provided such an eloquent explanation of why Guantanamo is so abhorrent an institution that I don't believe it will be possible for him to drop it again and to retreat to a position of inertia. But clearly the pressure must continue, as Obama appears to be in no hurry to act. It won't hurt us to remind him that his legacy is already being written, and that Guantanamo will be a huge black mark against him if he continues to do nothing. We need action sooner rather than later, and we need, most of all, courage and an understanding that knowing the difference between right and wrong is worthless unless it leads to decisive action.

For more on secret prisons:

'Zero Dark Thirty' Made Me Write This

Guantanamo Bay Doctors Are Helping Torture Captives