Despite the lawyers of over a dozen inmates reporting a widespread hunger strike happening right now inside Guantanamo, a prison spokesperson issued a no-such-thing statement on Monday. The alleged hunger strike started over three weeks ago when, in the lawyers' words, guards began "personal items, including blankets, sheets, towels, mats, razors, toothbrushes, books, family photos, religious CDs, and letters, including legal mail; and restricting their exercise, seemingly without provocation or cause." The lawyers continued in a letter to prison commander, Rear Adm. John Smith, "Arabic interpreters employed by the prison have been searching the men's Qur'ans in ways that constitute desecration according to their religious beliefs, and that guards have been disrespectful during prayer times." These lawyers weren't talking about one or two prisoners, by the way. They say these transgressions and the hunger strike that's followed affects "all but a few men."
But it's cool because the government says it's not true, right? Wrong! If you've read anything about Guantanamo and its treatment of prisoners over the years, you'll know that there's a long history of duplicitous behavior that ranges from the top of the command chain all the way down to the guards themselves. When we mention to the top of the command chain, we're talking about none other than President Barack Obama himself, who promised years ago in an Executive Order to close the secretive facility and send the inmates to a regular old Illinois prison. Instead, as Glenn Greenwald explains, "the rights of detainees — including the basic right to legal counsel — are being constricted further, in plainly vindictive ways." At the bottom of the command chain, that's translated into hidden cameras being installed in the rooms where detainees meet with their lawyers. A Navy officer revealed the existence of these cameras last month, after government officials denied their existence.
This is the sort of thing that makes human rights advocates curl into corners and cry onto their knee caps. On one hand, you have a team of lawyers — who've been put in the very difficult position of defending suspected terrorists — doing their best to stand up for their clients' human rights, when the government that's imprisoned these men has historically neglected these prisoners' rights. Nobody's asking the Obama administration to let terrorists run free. They're just asking for humane treatment while in detention, a fair trial and maybe that the guards don't deliberately insult the prisoners' religion. On the other hand, you have this Guantanamo spokesman who has to deal with what's undeniably a rage-inducing report that prisoners are being so poorly treated that they're willing to starve to death rather than continue living in squalor. News like this is exactly how Al Qaeda recruits terrorists to kill Americans. So if the spokesman confirms the hunger strike, he's damned by the terrorists. If he doesn't, he's damned by the human rights advocates. It's a damned-if-you-and-damned-if-you-don't scenario. Also known as a Catch 22.
So the answer to that question in the headline is absolutely yes. Lots of people care if the prisoners in Guantanamo go on a hunger strike, because it serves as proof to the outside world that they're continuing to be mistreated. Lots of people also care if the prisoners don't go on a hunger strike, and their lawyers say they did — which is basically what we have to assume is the case if we believe Guantanamo officials. Given the government's history of doublespeak, nobody knows who to believe.
We'll leave you with this thought: Hunger strike or no hunger strike, Guantanamo's record and reputation is appalling and it's only getting worse. And it's almost impossible to find the middle ground between the practical reasons for keeping the prison open and the moral reasons for closing it as soon as possible. As Greenwald pointed out in a recent column, "More detainees have died at the camp (nine) than have been convicted of wrongdoing by its military commissions (six)." And some of these prisoners died without even getting the chance to defend themselves. Greenwald continues, "Indeed, dying in due process-free captivity now appears to be the only way for many of these detainees to leave." Are you appalled yet?