‘Political football’: Gitmo detainees ‘abandoned’ by US government

Left in legal limbo, desperation continues to drive the Guantanamo hunger strike on its 100th day. Facing a chronic lack of political will from Washington, the fate of the prisoners remains ambiguous, investigative journalist Andy Worthington argues.

On Thursday the number of Guantanamo’s 166 prisoners now taking part in the mass hunger strike reached 102. Thirty of the detainees are being force-fed, and three are being observed in the detainee hospital.

Follow RT’s day-by-day timeline of the Gitmo hunger strike.

In the eleven and a half years that the prisoners have been held in the detention camp, some 90 per cent of them have not been charged with a crime. That, coupled with the fact that many of the detainees were already cleared for release but have faced stiff resistance from Congress and equivocation from the White House, has forced the prisoners to risk life and health to be heard, Worthington told RT.

RT:You've been gathering information on the inmates - What can you tell us about the conditions for them now.

Andy Worthington:
Well the conditions for them are terrible in the sense that they have literally been abandoned by all three branches of the United States government. So since President Obama failed to keep his promise to close the prison within a year – that was in January 2010 – they have been unable to see any future for themselves apart from staying in Guantanamo forever. And what underpins the horror of all of this is that half of these men were cleared by an interagency task force which the president himself established. But he then imposed a ban on releasing two-thirds of them because they’re Yeminis after a failed bomb plot in Christmas 2009. And the rest of the men, in fact all of the men have had their release blocked or made extremely difficult by Congress.

So it’s become a game of political football, cynically I think lawmakers are preventing prisoners from being released and the president himself has been unwilling to expend political capital on an issue that isn’t popular enough with the voters. So it’s taken the hunger strike for the prisoners to get noticed.

RT:These men are now taking desperate measures, but we’ve seen hunger strikes there before. So will this one have any significant impact?

AW: Well, I think it has to because it’s such a long time the prison has been open. It’s not as though anyone legitimately is claiming that there is any reason [for most of] these men to be held apart from the fact that it’s proven difficult to close the facility down and to release the majority of them. So I think the pressing question is: how is the administration going to go about particularly resolving the issue of the prisoners that its task force said the US no longer wanted to hold. Those men have to be released, and there have been good signs this week from [Attorney General] Eric Holder saying, following what President Obama said two weeks ago, that they are looking to appoint someone to oversee the Guantanamo issue and yesterday hinting that this ban on the Yeminis, which officials reinforced just a few weeks ago, by saying that maybe they are thinking of lifting the ban. They have to lift the ban. It’s absolutely critical that these 56 Yeminis are sent home.

RT:And even Hillary Clinton said yesterday that the 86 who are being held without charge should be released, so in effect there could be a turn of the tide. At the same time, let’s concentrate on conditions for those prisoners at the moment, because it seems that they are getting worse and that the authorities there are really putting further pressure on them. That’s according to reports from the prisoners themselves.

AW: Absolutely. I agree with all of the experts who find the force feeding of prisoners deplorable, but that said, there really is no way the United States government is going to allow prisoners to die at Guantanamo if they can help it, whether they should be allowing them to or not.

RT:So what are the consequences if the prisoners die? Would that really be a turning point if that did happen?

AW: Well, I think the turning point that needs to happen is the political turning point. You know, the reason the men are doing this is because they are in despair. The reason they are doing this is because half of them were told they are going home and haven’t gone anywhere. So it needs resolving on that basis. As soon as there is motion on that, I suspect that the repercussions in the prison will bring that issue down a little bit. At the moment it seems to be very much [that] the prison is a kind of terrible bubble within which the authorities have been trying to regain the upper hand over the prisoners and have resorted to isolating them, which is a terrible thing for these men who are already despairing, and having to force feed them in this manner. If the politics takes the lead, we’ll actually see some improvement.

RT:If politics takes the lead and let’s say the prison is closed down, won’t we see another one opening up in its place?

AW: I don’t think we’re close to seeing this one close down. We have to get the 86 cleared prisoners released. We then have 80 men left at Guantanamo. Some of these men are supposed to face trial, those of course have been very, very slow in happening and 46 of them were designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial by President Obama in an executive order two years ago. Now at the time, the only thing that made this notion even vaguely palatable to lawyers and human rights groups was that he promised there would be periodic reviews of these men’s cases to establish whether they remain a threat. Those reviews haven’t happened at all, so they need to happen, and there needs to be a genuine, objective analysis of quite how many really dangerous prisoners there are or ever have been in Guantanamo, and these people must be tried. Everything that we’ve seen over the years, and these are reports from the inside, suggest that this is no more than a few dozen of the 166 men who are still being held.