The latest Guantanamo Bay hunger strike is working as planned.
With 31 of 166 detainees acknowledged as hunger strikers, international media reports are hailing this as a desperate protest by mistreated men.
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed public defender Carlos Warner, who claims that his clients face “dire” conditions ever since a new commander took over Guantanamo and the White House abandoned plans to close the detention centre.
Military spokesman Captain Robert Durand tells a different story, however, maintaining that the strike is an “orchestrated event intended to garner media attention,” according to the New York Times.
So which is the real story? When I visited Guantanamo earlier this month, it was hard not to see things from the military’s point of view.
Take the incident that started the strikes: When a guard allegedly defiled a Koran during cell inspections. The base has clear protocols in place to prevent such an incident, with all inspections performed by a Muslim interpreter under the supervision of trained guards and under the direction of the on-base cultural advisor, a 50-something Iraqi named Zak.
Zak tells me he doubts there was any breach of protocol — something the military officially denies as well.
It’s also hard to believe that guards, who already gripe about the difficulty of their assignment, would do anything that would make their lives tougher.
Zak demonstrated why Koran inspections are important, taking a hard-cover Koran, flipping it upside down, and showing the wide opening under the spine.
Last time they stopped Koran searches, he explains, several detainees stashed medication in these tunnels of paper and then took the medication all at once in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Suicide is another effective way of getting media attention, and there remains a rumour among detainees that three simultaneous suicides would force the Pentagon to close Guantanamo — despite three suicides already happening in 2006.
In short, it’s not at all clear that the Koran incident even happened, and the strikers’ demand that Koran searches be stopped is impossible.
As for the claim that detainees are mistreated, that also does not jibe with what I saw in Guantanamo.
While indefinite detainment without trial may be morally offensive, the overriding philosophy on base these days is to treat the detainees really well. Detainees enjoy enjoy a selection of six balanced meals, 25 cable TV channels, classes, and an array of electronic gadgetry and entertainment.
Conditions at Guantanamo are absurdly good for the simple reason of getting the media to leave them alone. This is the White House’s best option for making the controversy go away, since closing the detention centre has proven impossible. Resort treatment brings its own means of control for guards, who can threaten to take away handheld game consoles and other privileges from non-compliant detainees. It’s not a perfect option, seeing that Guantanamo is insanely expensive compared to every prison in the world, but that’s where we are.
That’s why people on base respond skeptically toward demands for better treatment of detainees. As for the opinion that low-level detainees should be transferred or that Guantanamo should be closed, most people on base consider that above their pay grade.
There’s also controversy over how many people are participating in the hunger strike.
Lawyers for the detainees say there are more participants than the 31 the government has acknowledged. Personnel on base, however, suggest that there could be even fewer.
Some detainees, I was told, decline meals at the cafeteria so that they count among the strikers, and then walk over to medical and ask for a can of Ensure liquid meal to drink. There is also a lot of food that comes into group cells and gets distributed without oversight, enabling a “striker” to eat.
Military personnel I spoke to see the strike as a reaction to fading media attention about Guantanamo.
Detainees read the news, talk to family at home, and have cable, they see what everyone else does. When they saw Obama failed to mention the camp in his inaugural address, they noticed. The last bit of hope maintained by many began to fade. They needed control and attention to get back in the news.
“They use our religion as a shield and a weapon,” Zak tells me.
Hunger strikes have been effective in the past, notably a much larger strike in 2005 that led to significant improvements in detainee treatment.
While the current strike is getting media attention, however, it’s not clear what it can achieve. Conditions for most detainees good, as noted by me Reuters’s Bob Strong, and anyone else who has actually visited Guantanamo recently. Koran inspections aren’t going anywhere. As for the closure of the detention centre, well, we’ll believe it when we see it.
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