Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War – 2005-11-01 13:45:16
There is a small band of men who are so dedicated to the defense of the protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights that they are willing to lay down their lives to demand these sacred principles. No, they aren’t US soldiers or civil libertarians — they are “enemy combatants” confined in the gulag of Guantanamo.
All freedom-loving Americans should pause to consider the sacrifices of Fawzi al-Odah, Yousef Al Shehri, Abduhl-Rahman Shalabi, Mahid Al Joudi and 21 other detainees who are engaged in a withering hunger strike inside the prison cells of Guantanamo — a 45-square-mile stretch of sun-baked desert surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire.
When Fawzi al-Odah was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, he was 25-years-old and he weighed a scant 139 pounds. Today al-Odah weighs 112 pounds. He has been on a fast since August 8 and now he is demanding that the feeding tube forced down his nose be removed so he can die and put an end to his suffering.
Hunger strikes have been waged in Guantanamo since early 2002. The latest fast involved 76 prisoners. By late October, 26 detainees were still refusing food and 23 were being force-fed through tubes that, according to attorney Julia Tarver, have left some of her clients “vomiting up substantial amounts of blood.”
Bill Goodman, Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York, says “The Guantanamo hunger strikers are willing to die unless they get humane treatment, including some small measure of justice…. Bloody force-feeding with dirty tubes is barbaric.”
On November 1, a global Fast for Justice was called in support of the detainees demands, which include: access to legal counsel; access to medical records; telephone access to lawyers and families. A vigil was held in Washington, DC to call attention to a human rights situation that is so calamitous that several prisoners have committed suicide — an act of desperation that seems to offer the only guaranteed escape from Guantanamo.
On October 25, CCR lawyers won a court ruling that allowed access to the detainees and to their medical records, specifically as regards force-feeding. Tarver declared that the US District Court ruling “reaffirms our faith in the American system of justice, where no one — not even the Government itself — is above the rule of law. However, we still have grave concerns about the condition of our clients, some of whome are young boys who have spent nearly four years without charge, isolated miles away from their families, and are rapidly losing hope that justice will ever prevail for them.”
Tarver, whose legal firm represents ten Saudi nationals imprisoned in Gitmo, reports that her clients continue to be subjected to verbal and physical abuse, medical maltreatment and unsanitary conditions.
It has been nearly four years since these men were rounded up in Afghanistan, covered with cloth hoods and marched to the bellies of C-130 cargo planes where they were manacled to the floor and dragged blindfolded through the clouds halfway around the world to the sweltering open-air concrete-and-wire kennels of Guantanamo.
It is estimated that 540 men are imprisoned in Guantanamo without charges, without trial, without any hope of redress. More than half the prisoners have resorted to a wave of hunger strikes to draw attention to their plight.
What most Americans do not know, however, is that these almost completely powerless prisoners (the ones who have not committed suicide out of despair at ever being release to rejoin their families) have successfully employed the tactics of nonviolent resistance to win recognition for those basic human rights and civil liberties that all Americans claim as their patrimony.
The Legal Limbo of an Unnecessary War
The US declared war on Afghanistan ostensibly because the Taliban government refused to turn over Osama bin Laden to the US. The Taliban claimed that even if they knew bin Laden’s whereabouts, they would not hand him over until the US provided clear presentation of charges and a guarantee of judicial due process. The Taliban ultimately agreed to place bin Laden’s fate placed in the hands of an independent international body.
The offer of a third-party resolution was to no avail. Washington unleashed a rain of bombs whose declared goal was to replace the Taliban with a pro-US government. In the process, the US arrested thousands of Afghan and Islamic fighters who took up arms to resist the foreign invasion.
Self-defense against foreign attacks is a recognized right under international law. Nonetheless, the Pentagon arrested thousands of soldiers, irregulars, and hapless bystanders and labeled these men “enemy combatants,” a neo-con neologism designed to place them beyond the protections of international laws including the Geneva Accords.
We now know that some of these men were just luckless individuals who were pulled from taxi cabs or marched from their homes to be handed over to US soldiers as “Taliban fighters” in exchange for tempting bounties of Pentagon cash. We now know that the US imprisoned children in the open-air cages of Gitmo. We now know that the Pentagon has been forced to release a number of detainees who were guilty of no crimes.
Three British men who were released in February 2004, complained of having been stripped, chained to the floor for 18 hours a day, placed in isolation and threatened with dogs. During their detention, the so-called “Tipton Three” all confessed to crimes. They were only released after the British government proved that all three men had actually been in Britain at the time of their alleged “crimes.”
Michael Ratner, a civil rights lawyer and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, cites the case of the Tipton Three as proof that coercive interrogation doesn’t work because “you get people willing to say anything because they want the torture or the inhumane treatment to end.”
“We’re Going to Go to the Dark Side Now”
“There was a pre-9/11 and there was a post/9/11,” former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism Cofer Black declared, and now “the gloves are off.” Or as Vice President Dick Cheney memorably explained to Meet the Press: “We’re going to have to go to the dark side now.”
The US is “no longer a country of law,” CCR’s Ratner believes. Rattner, who despairs to see the US now committing crimes that it once condemned under the dictatorship of Chile’s General Pinochet concludes: “‘Taking off the gloves’ means literally erasing the Constitution and the protections against torture.”
The outlines of this inhumane treatment are now a matter of public record, thanks to Exhibit E of the Schlesinger report, which details the techniques that were approved for the denizens of Gitmo and the dozens of other US military prisons (known and hidden) scattered around the world.
They include: Hooded interrogations. Stripping prisoners naked. Removing “comfort items” (like prayer rugs and the Koran). Exploiting phobias (like a fear of dogs). And painful “stress positions.” “We can use stress positions for four hours,” one document states. The page carries a hand-written notation from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “Why only four hours? I stand 10 hours a day.”
Thanks to the committed jurists and volunteers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, the faceless prisoners of Guantanao have gained recognition before the court. More than a year ago, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Rasul v. Bush that the Gitmo detainees are entitled to access to legal representation before federal courts. In a ruling that briefly gave hope to freedom-loving Americans, the court ruled that even someone the president has slapped with the “enemy combatant” label is still a human being endowed with “certain inalienable rights.”
But the men who sit in the White House, the Attorney General’s office, and the Pentagon, have chosen to pretend that the Supreme Court ruling never happened. The man who swore on a Bible to “defend and protect the Constitution” has chosen to ignore a ruling of the US Supreme Court.
And that is why the Patriots of Guantanamo have been forced to go on strike with their very lives. They are demanding, in the most dramatic manner available to desperate souls with no other recourse, a “just expectation from the opinion of mankind.”
“Give Us Liberty or Give Us Death”
In 1776, America’s Founding Fathers signed a document pledging their “lives and sacred honor” to the cause of securing a world “conceived in liberty.” The Patriots of Guantanamo have not been provided with pens or parchment: They have been compelled to their pledge not with words but deeds.
Fawzi al-Odah’s stance echoes one of the most famous cries from America’s revolution. But when Patrick Henry thundered, “Give me liberty or give me death,” his stirring words were rhetorical. Al-Odah’s are dead serious. He has informed his US lawyers that he wants a judge to order the removal of the feeding tube that is keeping him alive.
Al-Odah’s lawyer, Tom Wilner, insists that his client has the right to demand to die “out of desperation” over his continued imprisonment without charges or any hope of a trial and release. Al-Odah “is willing to take a stand if it will bring justice.”
Wilner, whose legal team represents 11 Kuwaiti nationals imprisoned at Guantanamo, explains that the hunger strike is aimed at winning basic human rights — adequate food and water, an end to physical abuse, the right to a trial.
The Patriots of Guantanamo are insisting on nothing less than the same basic protections granted to US citizens under the Bill of Rights — specifically, the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Ninth Amendments. Clearly something is seriously amiss when it is the so-called “enemies of democracy” that are willing to die to defend principles of the Bill of Rights while the men entrusted to defend the Constitution ignore and abuse these laws.
This hunger strike for human rights has filled the cells of Guantanamo with ranks of emaciated wraiths. Their ravaged bodies would certainly evoke memories of the hollow-eyed prisoners of Dachau but Americans cannot see these gaunt faces and crippled bodies. Like the caskets of slain US soldiers and the videotapes of sexually abused Iraqi captives, these images have been declared off-limits by government edict. Even the International Red Cross is banned from describing the conditions inside Guantanamo. We only have the words of the lawyers at CCR.
We have been told that the measure of a government can be found in how it treats “the least among us.” Today, America’s moral standard is being weighed in the dungeons of Guantanamo. The hunger strikers are not simply fasting for their rights — they are fasting for all of us. Their demands should be our demands. And, if they aren’t, what guarantee do any of us have that their fate might not one day be our own?
Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War. He edits The-Edge.org, an investigative Web-site based in Berkeley, California.
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