First it was five or six. Then it was 14. Then 24, and now 25. Those are the number of Guantánamo Bay detainees on hunger strike that the Department of Defense has officially acknowledged over the course of the past month. Defense attorneys for the detainees say the real number of those on hunger strike is, shockingly, as high as 100. Eight of the hunger strikers are being force-fed through a tube, a process the United Nations has previously classified as torture. Two hunger strikers have been hospitalized for dehydration.
The strike seems to have been set off by a search of detainees belongings' by guards in February, which resulted in what many detainees considered a desecration of the Koran. Guantánamo Bay spokesperson Navy Captain Robert Durand has denied that any mishandling of the holy book happened, or that the search in question was anything other than routine. But there is a deeper reason underlying this coordinated protest – namely, Guantánamo Bay's apparent permanence.
As it becomes increasingly clear that President Obama has no plans to shutter the world's most infamous indefinite detention facility, any trace of optimism seems to have vanished from detainees on the base. There are still 166 prisoners there, 86 of whom have been cleared for release but continue to be detained despite the lack of danger they pose. Many of those 86 are Yemenis, who are barred from being transferred back to their home country after a 2010 Obama-issued moratorium on releasing prisoners to that country.
One Yemeni detainee, Adnan Latif, had been cleared for release by both Bush and Obama administration officials, and a federal judge ordered him released as well. Obama's Department of Justice appealed that judge's ruling and won. Latif was ultimately held for over a decade without charge; he died in September 2012, though the circumstances around his death remain murky.
I've been to Guantánamo Bay twice to cover the early stages of the military trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Public affairs officers there have told me that many detainees live in a relatively unrestricted environment – a claim that should be taken with the appropriate grain of salt. It's common to hear government officials say things like "Gitmo of 2013 isn't Gitmo of 2002." Even some former human rights advocates have staked out that position.
But what that argument fails to acknowledge is that indefinite detention, either explicit or de facto, causes extreme psychological trauma. Holding people based on their country of origin after they've been cleared for release is a shameful policy – and yet one that has bi-partisan support, and one which too many liberals seem to be comfortable with. The Guantánamo Bay spokesperson said that protests like the hunger strike are "coordinated acts specifically designed to attract media attention." In a country that has all but forgotten about Guantánamo Bay, increased media attention on that prison would be a welcome change.