Hunger strikes place Guantanamo Bay in spotlight again

Thursday 08 August 2013 20.58
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An officer stands outside Camp VI of the US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay
An officer stands outside Camp VI of the US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay
A communal area outside cells in Camp VI
A communal area outside cells in Camp VI
The restraint chair used to force-feed detainees on hunger strike
The restraint chair used to force-feed detainees on hunger strike
The detainee hospital operating room in Camp Delta
The detainee hospital operating room in Camp Delta
An officer checks in on a detainee during morning prayer at Camp V
An officer checks in on a detainee during morning prayer at Camp V
A static display shows the belongings of a typical inmate in a prison cell
A static display shows the belongings of a typical inmate in a prison cell

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Richard Downes reports from Guantanamo Bay

What a strange place, this Guantanamo Bay.

Flying into the tiny military airport on this American military outpost on the south-eastern edge of Cuba, you pass over the most idyllic-looking, beautiful islands, sand-fringed discs apparently floating in the azure seas of the Caribbean. They are part of the Turks and Caicos Islands, an exclusive tourist paradise.

There are not many tourists in Guantanamo but the permanent residents include 166 detainees in the arid and boiling fringes of one of the many coves that make up the larger 45 square miles of Guantanamo.

The United States has maintained that the detainees are enemy combatants, allegedly captured on the battlefield and detained at this base in Cuba. Even thought President Obama has criticised the Guantanamo facility on many occasions, this remnant of the Bush/Cheney era is still there.

Some of the detainees have been here since 2002, more than a decade. The detainees include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Egyptian leader of al-Qaeda, who was captured and water boarded dozens of times after his capture by American forces in 2003. KSM, as he is widely known, is facing a military commission, a court of sorts, on charges related to terrorism.

But the vast majority of the inmates of Guantanamo Camp V and Camp VI detention centres have not had any charges laid against them and the expectation is that very few will.

More than 80 have been cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo. The military here are determined to point out that this does not mean they have been cleared. They say it means they can go to a third country under supervision. But even though they have been cleared, almost all have been languishing in Guantanamo, with apparently little prospect of leaving.

This is the motivation for the large scale hunger strike that started in March of this year. Omar Farah, a lawyer from the Centre for Constitutional Rights, says the hunger strike is borne of the frustration and despair that many inmates experience because of their status as "enemy combatants" of the United States, captured on the battlefield.

The response of the authorities to the hunger strike has been to force feed or internally feed the inmates, twice a day. They are brought into a medical room, restrained by hand, foot and head. A tube is then introduced down the back of the nose and into the stomach. Food is then fed in that way.

There are signs that the hunger strike is waning. A number of inmates are taking food voluntarily and there has been a flurry of activity in Washington. There is talk that two inmates will be released imminently. There is more talk about tribunals and further status reviews. Undoubtedly the detainees feel their hunger strike has put them back on the map.

President Obama's repeated promises to close Guantanamo have so far failed to be realised. Republicans in Congress are adamant that the detainees should not be brought on to American soil for trial or release. Advocates for the detainees say the President has been timid and weak and could move forward if he had the will.

They believe the continuing detentions at Guantanamo are a failure of will.

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Keywords: guantanamo bay