Hunger Strike by Gitmo Detainees Enters 2nd Month
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
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for release Oct. 5, 2005
Hunger Strike by Guantanamo Detainees Enters Second Month
Interview with Tom Wilner, attorney representing 11 Guantanamo Bay prisoners, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
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Photos depicting the mistreatment and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners held in the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison erupted into an international scandal when first published in the spring of 2004. Now, in the last of a series of trials conducted against nine low-level soldiers accused of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Army Pfc. Lynndie England has been convicted of maltreating detainees, committing an indecent act and conspiracy. The 22-year-old, now awaiting sentencing, faces up to nine years in prison.
New allegations of torture at U.S.-run detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan have surfaced in a report issued by Human Rights Watch based on the accounts of two soldiers and an officer with the 82nd Airborne Division. The report describes widespread abuse and asserts that low-ranking soldiers have been held responsible for acts that officers condoned.
Tom Wilner is an attorney representing 11 Kuwaitis held in detention at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He filed suit on their behalf in May 2002, maintaining they had a right to challenge their detention in court. In June of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor, but the Bush administration has interpreted the ruling so narrowly that it has effectively negated the detainees' rights. Wilner argued some specifics of the case again on Sept. 8, and a ruling is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals. In protest of their indefinite imprisonment without charge or the prospect of a trial, at least 128, or nearly one-quarter of all detainees at Guantanamo have undertaken a hunger strike. Press reports state that 18 prisoners have been force-fed in a hospital since the strike began Aug. 8. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Wilner about the legal odyssey of his clients, and the significance of the hunger strike.
TOM WILNER: It’s important to understand that the government took these people to Guantanamo Bay so it could argue that it was beyond the law, so the courts could not look at what they were doing. That was their explicit purpose for doing it. They argued that because these are foreigners and because they’re being held outside the United States, that they have no legal rights and no access to the U.S. courts. So, even though we won before the Supreme Court almost 15 months ago, the U.S. government has stonewalled and not done anything and has said we have no legal rights: They’re making the same arguments again.
BETWEEN THE LINES: There was a fairly widespread hunger strike in June and July, which ended after the government made some promises to improve their treatment. But now more than 100 prisoners are on a hunger strike again. Can you explain what’s going on?
TOM WILNER: I just got back from Guantanamo Bay, visiting my people. We found out that five of them are on hunger strike; two of them are being force-fed by the government. We expect by the end of the week, it’ll be four or five that will be force-fed. You’ve got to understand that these people have been in captivity now for about four years. It’s an open secret in Washington that many of the people at Guantanamo are absolutely innocent. The commandant down there has said that most of these people don’t belong there, the deputy commandant has said that, and a lot of interrogators have said publicly that most of the people down there had no connection with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, yet, they’ve never had any sort of fair hearing at all to determine that. So these guys, basically claim, first of all, look, we’re innocent, if they think we’re guilty in any way, let them charge us so we can defend ourselves. So, that was their basic demand back in July for the hunger strike. And they also said, and treat us in ac t’s a terrible thing. These people are not doing it for some sort of publicity stunt. As one guy told me, he said, “Look, I’ve been here for four years. I’m an innocent person. If they want to charge me, that’s fine, but otherwise I should be released, and I’m just not going to eat anymore at Guantanamo.”
He also said that they’ve read some of these stories of congressional people that go down there and say that Guantanamo is a wonderful place – like a Caribbean resort – and they’re eating good food. And he looked at me and said, “I’m just not going to be part of this lie anymore. If I eat, I condone my treatment. I’m not going to eat down here, and if I die, it’s better than being in this hell.”
BETWEEN THE LINES: But, of course, the government isn’t allowing them to die, it’s force-feeding those who are the weakest.
TOM WILNER: You know, I don’t want to go out and advocate that my people should die; I want to advocate that they should have the basic rights of American justice, to be tried, you know, or charged, so they can defend themselves. That’s what I think is basic. I can’t tell you how tough it is to see these people on hunger strike. They look like pictures from the Sudan; they’re skin and bones, and they’ve just been denied the basic principles of American justice.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Doesn’t it seem like the government has made a smart move by keeping these prisoners outside the U.S., where they really do seem to be forgotten by most Americans, or at least they are not focused on as much as I’m sure you would hope. Do you think there needs to be a major outcry from the public in order to get justice for these people, or are you confident that your legal maneuvers might succeed on their own?
TOM WILNER: When we brought the court case, we knew that it would take a long time, and we hoped it would be one element of added pressure on the administration to do the right thing, to stop reacting out of fear and giving up our principles, but to try to do the right thing, to just give these people a right to a fair hearing, which is all they’ve ever asked for. And let me just say that I, and I think everyone else on my side, believes that the U.S. needs to do whatever it needs to do to protect its security. You need to be able to detain bad and dangerous people. But the essence of the rule of law is that you need to have a fair procedure to make sure that you’re detaining the right people and not the wrong people. You need a fair procedure to distinguish them and we’ve never had that here. I’m very disappointed in the U.S. government, but I’m very, very disappointed at U.S. citizens in general, and, frankly, at the media, because this is an outrage. It’s just totally contrary to everything that this coun
For more information, contact the Center for Constitutional Rights at (212) 614-6464 or visit the group's website at: http://www.ccr-ny.org
Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Oct. 7, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.
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