Indefinite detention at Guantánamo continues - 100 detainees on hunger strike

May 3, 2013

Indefinite detention at Guantánamo continues - 100 detainees on hunger strike

What will it take to get the US government - across its three branches - to act with a real and continuing sense of urgency to close the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, and to do so in ways that meet the USA's international human rights obligations?

A glimmer of hope for progress emerged with President Barack Obama breaking his recent silence on the detentions. At a White House press conference on 30 April 2013, one thousand five hundred and sixty days after he committed his administration to closing the Guantánamo detention facility within 365 days, President Obama said that he still "believe[d] that we've got to close Guantánamo". He was asked about the growing hunger strike among detainees held there, and responded that it was "not a surprise to me that we've got problems in Guantánamo". He further said that:

"the notion that we're going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no man's land in perpetuity…, the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried - that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop".

The US authorities, President Obama included, are yet to acknowledge that the Guantánamo detention regime is contrary to international human rights law, instead framing the "problem" exclusively in terms of domestic interests and values and the USA's "war" against al-Qa'ida and associated groups. And while the administration continues to blame Congress for blocking resolution of the detentions, the administration's own "promise" involves moving some four dozen detainees into indefinite detention elsewhere and, for a number of other detainees, continuing to resort to a military commission system falling short of international fair trial standards.

But, in part, President Obama is right - it is not surprising that these detainees are protesting their situation. Whatever the initial trigger for this hunger strike, there is no escaping the backdrop to it - detainees being held year after year after year with no indication of when, if ever, they will be released or brought to trial. Distress and protest are predictable outcomes of treating detainees as if they have no human rights, ciphers to be cast into oblivion thousands of miles from their families, their fate left to the whims of domestic politics to the exclusion of international human rights law and principles.

One of the detainees on hunger strike is Obaidullah, an Afghan national who has been in US military custody without trial since 21 July 2002. He told his lawyer in late March 2013:

"I am losing all hope because I have been imprisoned for almost eleven years now at Guantánamo and still do not know my fate".

Obaidullah was about 19 years old when he was taken into US custody. He is now about 30. According to his lawyer, his parting words at the end of their latest meeting in March 2013 were "please tell the world of this unfairness", adding "Latif died here even with a clearance". Here Obaidullah was referring to Yemeni national Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif who had been among those "approved for transfer" by the executive authorities, and who had repeatedly expressed despair at his indefinite detention. His circumstances, he said, "made death more desirable than living". In October 2011, after nearly a decade in US custody without charge or trial and a few days after a federal appeals court overturned a lower court order that he be released, Adnan Latif told his lawyer "I am a prisoner of death". Latif had been involved in protests against conditions at the camp, protests which included hunger strikes. When his lawyers met with him in May 2012, Adnan Latif had resumed his hunger strike. He was physically very weak and he "thinks he will die and has given up all hope", his lawyer said. Although he apparently ended his hunger strike, in September 2012, three months after the US Supreme Court refused to take his case, Adnan Latif was dead, reportedly as a result of suicide. In a statement, his lawyer said: