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Déjà vu: Defense officials downplay growing Guantanamo hunger strike with Bush-era talking points

Truthout (with boldfacing added)
by Jason Leopold
April 1, 2013

The hunger strike that government officials say now involves 37 Guantanamo prisoners parallels one that took place in 2006. Both protests stem from the search of prisoners' Korans that Guantanamo officials suspected were used to conceal drugs.

As the Guantanamo hunger strike enters its third month, government spokespeople tasked with responding to the media about the prisoners' decision to refuse meals have dug into their archives and cited - nearly word for word - statements used during the height of another hunger strike nearly a decade ago to downplay the seriousness of the issue.

Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the Guantanamo prison spokesman, told Truthout earlier this month that the hunger strike was "specifically designed" by the prisoners to "attract media attention."

It's a familiar line of defense, one that Durand, then a Navy commander, used dozens of times back in May 2006 concerning the last high-profile hunger strike at Guantanamo of about 100 prisoners.

"The hunger strikes are really an opportunity to take advantage of a window of maximum media attention …" Durand said during an interview with an Australian radio station, He rejected as false any suggestion that the hunger strike was a response to the abusive treatment of prisoners or that they were being held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Omar Farah is an attorney with the New York City-based Center for Constitutional Rights and represents two prisoners participating in the hunger strike. To him, Durand's comments - then and now - underscore how little has changed at Guantanamo under President Obama's leadership.

"Like the Bush/Cheney administration, the Obama administration's reflex is to defend its detention practices at Guantanamo and to downplay the prisoners' protests by claiming that they are motivated by a shallow interest in media attention rather than a principled rejection of eleven years of indefinite detention without charge and abusive conditions of confinement," Farah told Truthout. "Common sense tells us otherwise. This hunger strike, like the many before it, was triggered by an arbitrary crackdown by the Guantanamo prison administration and is driven by the existential torment indefinite detention produces."

Carlos Warner, a federal public defender in Ohio, represents Fayiz al-Kandari, a Kuwaiti who Warner said has lost 30 pounds since he began refusing food in February, with 11 other prisoners. Warner is not surprised Durand and other military officials would dismiss the hunger strike as nothing more than a publicity stunt.

"The military has a playbook and they are following it," Warner told Truthout. But, "the fact that it's the same rhetoric twice leads me to believe they are more concerned with public perception than the health of my clients."

Durand and Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, have since stepped up their rhetoric. They have attacked the habeas attorneys representing the prisoners, in interviews and in statements provided to dozens of other reporters.

Breasseale told CNN last week that what the prisoners relay to their attorneys, and "which some members of the defense council then dutifully take to the press," rarely matches "with reality."

David Remes, a Washington, DC-based human rights attorney who represents more than a dozen prisoners, has shared with the media allegations his clients have claimed about their treatment. Remes disputes the Pentagon's view of his clients' motives. "The military has no credibility when it comes to Guantanamo."

If there is any truth to Breasseale's assertion, it is not possible for reporters to independently make such a determination, given the extraordinary secrecy that continues to surround the operations at the prison. This secrecy belies the "transparent" tagline prominently displayed on Joint Task Force-Guantanamo's website.

Truthout recently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking a wide range of documents pertaining to the hunger strike and the treatment of the prisoners. Despite the ongoing secrecy, responsive records turned over could shed light on the true nature of the events that have unfolded over the past two months.

Aside from the recycling of talking points, the circumstances that led to the start of the hunger strike in February parallel what that took place seven years earlier. This current hunger strike has steadily increased in recent weeks and, according to the Pentagon, now includes more than 30 of Guantanamo's 166 prisoners, half of whom have been cleared for release or transfer.

Farah disputes the official numbers of hunger strikers. He said he has spoken to prisoners who told him "all but two [of about 130] prisoners in [communal] Camp 6 are participating in the strike."

"Those two are old and have medical problems," Farah said.

Prisoners who refuse nine consecutive meals are classified as hunger strikers. Eleven are presently being force-fed by Guantanamo medical personnel, through a procedure that has been described as torture.

Koran Searches - Then and Now - Spark Protests

The 2006 and 2012 hunger strikes appear to have been sparked by actions undertaken by Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) to search prisoners' Korans for "contraband." These searches were in response to five suicide attempts in May 2006 and the death last September of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a high-profile prisoner who an Army medical examiner concluded took his own life by ingesting a lethal dose of anti-psychotic medications.

The Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) launched a probe into Latif's death, a standard practice when a prisoner dies at Guantanamo. US officials who were briefed about the ongoing NCIS investigation have told Truthout that investigators were trying to determine how the prisoner, who suffered from mental illness, was able to amass and conceal a large quantity of medication. The prison's standard operating procedures (SOPs) state that a Navy corpsman is supposed to inspect a prisoner's mouth after medication is administered to ensure that he has swallowed it.

NCIS investigators floated one possible theory: Latif hid medications in his Koran, specifically, the binding of the holy book. The investigators looked back to a May 18, 2006, incident in which one prisoner was found unconscious in his cell, frothing at the mouth, inside the now shuttered Camp 1. The prisoner apparently ingested pills he was not prescribed. So the JTF-GTMO commander at the time, Adm. Harry Harris, ordered a "shakedown of the cells" and said he found pills hidden in the "bindings of the Holy Quran" and other places, such as one prisoner's prosthetic leg.

The handling of the Korans by guards and stricter policies the commander implemented made the prisoners' indefinite detention even more unbearable and led to the May 2006 hunger strike.

US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), JTF-GTMO's higher command, also began probing Latif's death and prepared a commander's inquiry, referred to as an AR 15-6 report. The commander's inquiry, completed last November, concluded that some of the prison's SOPs, such as round-the-clock monitoring of prisoners, were not adhered to - as Truthout first reported, citing military officials knowledgeable about the findings.

As a result, stricter policies have again been implemented, which the habeas attorneys claim include more intrusive searches. According to their attorneys, prisoners fear a return to the dark days when Harris reigned over the prison.

During conversations with Remes this month, one prisoner said the Army officer in charge of Camp 6 promised to "take things back to 2006."

"We considered what he said very threatening because 2006 was the height of torture and when the three brothers died … still a mystery to us what happened," Yemeni prisoner Yasein Khasem Mohammad Esmail told the human rights attorney Remes. Remes shared his unclassified notes dated March 5 with Truthout. The prisoner was referring to the June 9, 2006, deaths of three prisoners who took part in the hunger strike, which were ruled suicides, although evidence presented by former Guantanamo guard Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman suggested foul play. "It means our lives are in danger. Why else would they go back to 2006?"

Several military officials speaking on condition of anonymity, however, told Truthout nothing has changed. The guards have claimed that they have simply been enforcing longstanding SOPs - which call for routine searches of cells and the prisoners' personal belongings for contraband - that the previous guard force had not closely followed, "in order to avoid the potential for another suicide."

The prisoners have told their attorneys the searches were intrusive and resulted in the confiscation of their personal items such as eyeglasses, legal mail, photographs, letters and isomats (a foam-like mattress pad). They also said their Korans were searched by translators on orders from Army Col. John Bogden, the new commander of the Joint Detention Group at Guantanamo.

According to Capt. Alvin Phillips, a JTF-GTMO spokesman, the May 2006 incident "resulted in the SOP that no uniformed personnel are allowed to handle the Koran."

"In the event of a need for the Koran to be searched, all linguists can do so," Phillips told Truthout. Linguists "are all civilian, not military, and it removes the potential for allegations of Koran abuse by the guard force," he said.

But the prisoners say Korans had not been searched since May 2006. The prisoners' claim that the fact the Koran was being handled in the first place, regardless of who was touching it, is what led them to launch their hunger strike.

A 2009 Pentagon report that reviewed the conditions at Guantanamo said the commander of the Joint Detention Group "recognizes the SOP does not permit searching of the Koran or detainee groin areas, which is contrary to standard security measures in most detention facility operations, and that it carries a level of risk. However, he has accepted that risk out of an elevated respect for religious concerns of the detainees."

One prisoner, Fahed Ghazi, a Yemeni, told Remes translators at first resisted orders from guards to search the holy books, saying it will lead to "big problems."

"Government says detainees are hiding pills in Qurans," Ghazi said, according to Remes' unclassified notes dated March 6.

The officer in charge of Camp 6 responded by saying, "We're going back to the rules of 2006," according to statements that another Yemeni prisoner, Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, provided to Remes (in unclassified notes dated March 7).

Durand did not respond directly to Truthout's request for comment as to whether the Koran searches are a response to Latif's death, the recommendations in the SOUTHCOM commander's inquiry reports, or suspicions by NCIS investigators that he hid medications in the holy book.

But he noted that "there has been no change to our cell or block search SOPs." He said the searches that have been conducted, "for contraband that could be used to harm guards, medical personnel, translators, instructors, attorneys or detainees," are routine.

Durand added that the prisoners, who claim otherwise, are not telling the truth.

"Detainees have colluded among themselves to fabricate incidents and claim misconduct where there has been none," Durand told Truthout. "Detainees have acted out individually, recently splashing guards with various bodily fluids and excrement, but there have not been any large-scale incidents. These are coordinated acts specifically designed to attract media attention."

But "what's wrong with the detainees trying to draw attention to their plight?" Remes asked. Durand did not respond to that question.

Farah, the Center for Constitutional Rights attorney, said, "it's telling that Captain Durand disparages attempts to draw media attention when it was public scrutiny of Guantanamo that uncovered some of the most shameful US detention practices, including sleep deprivation, waterboarding, solitary confinement, and the sexual humiliation of prisoners in US custody."

"It is understandable then if some prisoners now want the world to realize that they are still detained without charge after more than a decade and that they are facing the chilling reality that they may die at Guantanamo simply because this administration lacks the political will to release them," Farah added.

Farah said Ghazi, the Yemeni prisoner he represents with Remes, told him "the prisoners are watching the government's response to the hunger strike through the news they get down there and they know the government is denying what is really taking place."

"In response, some men are contemplating taking an even harder line and refusing water," Farah said. "It's irresponsible for the government to whitewash this."

"Great Hope" in Obama's Promise

The lack of political will to release the prisoners was a point raised by Gen. John Kelly, the SOUTHCOM commander, during testimony last week before the House Armed Services Committee.

"They had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed," Kelly said. "They were devastated apparently when the president backed off, at least their perception, of closing the facility."

Kelly told lawmakers, however, he did believe the intention of the hunger strikers was to "turn up the heat, get it back in the media."

In that regard, the prisoners have succeeded. The hunger strike has become an international news story and a public relations nightmare for the government. It even merited a rare mention Wednesday by White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who said, "The White House and the President's team is closely monitoring the hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay." Earnest told reporters last week the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was also monitoring the hunger strike.”

Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the ICRC, told Truthout he could not confirm the number of prisoners who are currently on hunger strike. "Our observations are confidential," he said.

However, Schorno said the "underlying issue" between the 2006 hunger strike and the one taking place now "remains the same" and "that is the lack of a clear legal framework at Guantanamo and its impact on the mental and emotional health of detainees."

"This has now been having a real impact for detainees for some time – on their mental health, on their emotional health," Schorno said. "The fact that President Obama announced that Guantanamo will be closed back in 2010 – there hasn't been really any action with Guantanamo – is slowly disappearing from the landscape here, the political landscape and certainly, until a few days ago, the media landscape. All of this is playing into what is going on now …"

The challenge for JTF-GTMO now is how to end the hunger strike. Prisoners have claimed in recent days that they have been denied potable water and that the thermometers in their cells have been turned down to 60 degrees in an attempt to make them even more uncomfortable and stop hunger striking.

During the 2006 hunger strike, strapping prisoners to newly acquired restraint chairs and subjecting them to aggressive force-feedings was credited, in part, with helping to break the hunger strike.

"If obdurate detainees could be strapped down during and after their feedings, the guard officers hoped, it might ensure that they digested what they were fed" and it would bring an end to hunger strikes, the New York Times reported.

In recent days prisoners have alleged guards have attempted to break the hunger strike by subjecting them to physical and psychological abuse, according to the attorneys' unclassified notes. Indeed, Shaker Aamer, another high-profile prisoner, told his attorney late last week that he has been subjected to sleep deprivation, brutal forced cell extractions, and psychological torture, the same treatment he said he endured after he organized and took part in a massive hunger strike in the summer of 2005. Aamer, the last British prisoner at Guantanamo who was cleared for release five years ago, is being held in isolation in at the maximum-security Camp 5. He has lost 32 pounds since he stopped eating in early February.

"Shaker has been badly punished for joining the strike. He has been denied various things that were ordered for medical reasons including his second isomat (for his back), his blanket (for arthritis), his knee brace (for his knee injury), his back brace for his back problems), and the pressure socks that are meant to help with the edema in his feet. He even went ten days without being allowed a toothbrush," states a sworn declaration signed by Aamer's attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the UK-based human rights organization, Reprieve. Smith provided Truthout with a copy of his declaration.

Not true, Durand said.

The prisoners said they would immediately end their hunger strike if they were allowed to "surrender" their Korans, like they did during their 2006 hunger strike, instead of having them searched by translators. That demand was shot down because it could be interpreted that Guantanamo officials are denying prisoners their right to religious materials.

Durand said JTF-GTMO wants to see it end but the prisoners "have presented no demands that we can meet."

Warner, the lawyer who represents al-Kandari, said if the hunger strike continues, "there will be death." He said al-Kandari told him some prisoners have refused to take medication as well.

His notes after meeting with al-Kandari describes the Kuwaiti as "gaunt," "cheeks drawn" and "very thin," with a waist that "looks like a child's waist."

"If starvation doesn't kill, there's a risk of suicide," Warner said, adding that al-Kandari told him March 20 that one of his other clients, a Tunisian prisoner named Adel Hakeemy, who is being held in Camp 5, attempted suicide.

Durand said he could not comment as to whether any of the prisoners have attempted suicide since the start of the hunger strike. "We do not comment on specific detainees," he said.

Remes said his clients are prepared to die from starvation unless their demands are met. His unclassified notes indicate that Guantanamo officials would not entertain any of the detainees' demands until they started eating again.

"My clients are resolved to hunger strike until the military meets their demands, and are willing to risk death to achieve their goals," Remes said. "The military should not force-feed them to keep them alive or take other steps to pressure them into ending their hunger strike, such as by freezing them in their cells, withholding water, or placing them in solitary confinement."

Durand said JTF-GTMO would not allow the prisoners to die.

Warner believes the government will continue to cast the hunger strike as a gimmick.

"The military is doing what it has always done at Guantanamo," he said. "It's telling the world to look away and move on. It's assuring the world everything will be just fine. Things are not fine and I hope the world will not look away this time."

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