Hidden Angle

Columbia Journalism Review

Two weeks ago we wrote about our concern that little media attention was being paid to a massive hunger strike that had been taken up by over a quarter of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, demanding, among other improvements in their condition, proper legal recourse. At the time, 16 days ago, 128 prisoners were striking, 18 of whom were being force-fed.

Well, time has passed and the situation seems to be worsening, but the Defense Department’s obfuscations, along with a seriously distracted press caught up in both natural and political hurricanes, makes it hard to know just how much.

The only people really describing what is going on are the lawyers defending the detainees, who are the only ones who have been able to meet with the prisoners. Their accounts of the deteriorating condition of the prisoner’s health were worrisome enough that Amnesty International was prompted to issue a report last week entitled, “Guantanamo hunger strikers critically ill.”

According to Amnesty, 210 people, nearly half the detainee population, had become involved with the protest. But, amazingly, the DOD had that same day put the number at 36 (a drop from the official 136 just a week before).

The discrepancy, the report explains, has to do with the DOD’s definition of a hunger strike. “The U.S. military defines a hunger strike as the refusal of nine consecutive meals within a 72-hour period,” Amnesty says. “Reports from lawyers suggest that detainees are accepting one meal in this timeframe, but then flushing the meal down the toilet to avoid being force-fed through nasal gastric tubes.”

Susan Lee, Amnesty’s Americas director, says she’s concerned for the detainees that are falling outside the one-meal-in-three-days definition of hunger. Also troubling are reports from lawyers with the Center for Constitutional Rights, representing many of the detainees, who say their clients are being denied access to the detention camp hospital.

So disturbed were these lawyers that they asked Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of Federal District Court to assume oversight of the military’s management of the strike, one the detainees are calling “Hunger to Death.” This development, in the middle of last week, did get some attention from the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

But this all happened last week. And even then, those lawyers were describing their clients conditions in pretty dire terms. “Many participants … have stated their expectation of death and a growing number of detainees are now hospitalized and in grave condition,” attorneys David Remes and Marc Falkoff wrote. The prisoners were described in court as “gaunt and unwell.”

Thomas Wilner, a Washington lawyer who visited eleven Kuwaiti detainees last week, described their conditions specifically. Abdullah Al Kandari, a former member of the Kuwaiti National Volleyball Team who had managed to stay in excellent shape, was “pale, bleary-eyed, disoriented, barely audible, and had lost considerable weight.” Another, Abdulaziz Shammari, “could not maintain his balance without the aid of a walker. He is skin and bones and looks like one of the victims of starvation in the Sudan.” And Fawzi al Odah, who now weighs 113 pounds and is being force-fed, started spontaneously bleeding from his nose in the middle of their conversation.

Lawyers are advocates by nature, so their accounts need to be taken with a heavy dose of salt. But absent any other real information from the government — which refuses to even call the hunger strike by its name, referring to it instead as a “voluntary fast” — what other conclusions are we to come to?

If one or more of these detainees does in fact die, the press will be flogging itself for not having fully anticipated the seriousness of this protest. If the Pentagon continues to refuse to give real answers to Amnesty International or to the lawyers defending these prisoners, then it’s up to the press to apply the kind of pressure, to shine the kind of light, that only it can.

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