'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, October 03, 2005

Gitmo's Hunger Strikes 

Lawyer to 45 detainees, Clive Stafford-Smith, reveals in The Nation that a major hunger strike is still underway at Gitmo.

This is not exactly breaking news; for example, Voice of America citing the Times admitted a few weeks ago that

a widespread hunger strike at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is posing a serious challenge to military commanders there. [...] The hunger strike is the second this year at Guantanamo. It began in August after some detainees reported witnessing the abuse of a prisoner.

Stafford-Smith's editorial and the little VOA piece above are both discussing the same action despite the fact that the VOA writer labels the strike the "second" this year. If you want to carve up the hunger strikes with that level of granularity, the current one should actually qualify as about the third or fourth but it is very hard to disentangle which mainstream news account is talking about which, and it makes more sense to view the whole phenomenon as one big ongoing act of civil disobedience.

And it is a big act -- Stafford-Smith's piece led me to start reading all I could find on the subject and I was quickly struck by the scale of this story. Some sources are saying as many as 200 inmates are involved: that's 40% of the total prisoner population at Guantanamo Bay. We are all so used to the almost non-existent coverage of the plight of these prisoners, that when you read the occasional news story that does appear -- say, last summer when the Koran-in-the-toilet riots forced Guantanamo Bay back into American newspapers -- and the story offhandedly mentions the hunger strikers, we assume this action is a minor affair.

The truth is the strikes have been remarkably large and remarkably successful given the absolute powerlessness of those involved. Here's the Wikopedia:

The first hunger strike ended on July 28, 2005, when prison authorities agreed to make concessions. According to some accounts half a dozen detainees were then close to death. According to some accounts so many detainees were being forced to receive intravenous rehydration that the prison's well-equipped infirmary was overwhelmed and detainees had to be transferred to the Naval hospital.

According to human rights workers the prison authorities had a "waiver form" they called upon detainees to sign if they wanted to refuse intravenous rehydration. But the detainees have all been advised, by their lawyers, not to sign anything their lawyers haven't reviewed.

One concession the American authorities acknowledge making was to supply the detainees with a bottle of clean water to drink with each meal.

The detainees reported, to their lawyers, that the prison authorities had agreed that they would begin to treat them in a manner consistent with the Geneva Conventions. And when, a week later, it was obvious that the prison authorities were not abiding by their commitment, they initiated a second hunger strike in early August.

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