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Human Rights

Guantanamo still in limbo

Guantanamo has been grabbing headlines in the media again as US President Barack Obama once more promised to close the detention center. But a hunger strike there continues, with many prisoners in critical condition.

It's eerily quiet in the early morning at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba. We're in Block B, as soldiers patrol along the dark corridor. They move silently from cell to cell, looking inside each one.

Then, we see a hand poke out of one of the cell doors, holding a water bottle. The guard takes it away. That hand is the only thing we will see of the prisoners on this press tour through the detention center, as soldiers watch our every move.

They are careful that we see only what they want us to see. Images our cameraman has recorded are checked at the end of the day since faces and certain security units are not permitted to be filmed or photographed, and certainly not the 166 prisoners.

View of cell doors across a hallway
Copyright: Gero Schließ/DW

Prisoners are rarely permitted to leave their cells

But at 5 o'clock in the morning in Block B, the Muslim morning call to prayers can be heard. Each male prisoner prays in his own cell.

We don't know how many of the cells are inhabited, but we do know that all of those sitting in this block are in solitary confinement. They may leave their cells only rarely - shackled and under close supervision when, for instance, they want to take a shower.

Obama's speeach makes the rounds

Still, many prisoners have gotten wind of the US president's recently renewed promise to push forward in closing down Guantanamo, said prison commander Colonal John Bogdan. "The prisoners are talking about it, and they seem to be glad that the president mentioned it," he said.

Zak, who has worked at Guantanamo for the past eight years but doesn't want to divulge his full name, confirmed that. He's a member of the army who advises the camp administration and appears to have the most contact with the prisoners. The prisoners "have renewed hope and believe something will happen now," he said. 

Guantanamo again on the political agenda

But security at Guantanamo hasn't changed as a result of the president's announcement. And neither have the hunger strikes. Of the 166 detainees, more than one hundred are on a hunger strike, and the number is growing. More than 40 of them are being force-fed - under torment, as the prisoners and their attorneys have reported to the media. Whether the five prisoners who allegedly helped orchestrate the September 11th attacks are among the hunger-strikers is not something we were able to discover here.

The hunger strike was initially a response to the Guantanamo military's attempt to search prisoners' Korans during cell inspections, with detainees protesting to the camp administration what they saw as disrespect toward their holy book. The Guantanamo administration denied such treatment.

Hunger-strikers are fettered to this chair for forced-feeding via a nose tube to the stomach
Copyright: DW/Stefan Czimmek

Hunger-strikers are tethered to this chair for forced-feeding via a nose tube to the stomach

Military doctors defend force-feeding

Thirteen of the prisoners being force-fed in the ongoing hunger strike have voiced their protests in a public letter and expressed their mistrust of military physicians.

The military doctors, for their part, say they are concerned with saving the detainees' lives. And the prisoners could decide to resume eating voluntarily, they maintain - even while they are fettered to a chair several times a day to be fed. "It changes every day," said the head physician of the camp's hospital, who wants to remain unnamed. "Some of the patients do not refuse nourishment in the morning, but decide against it later in the day. And then there's a handful of patients who must be held down by guards."

We are shown this particular chair. It's hard and gray, and reclines slightly. If the prisoners resist, their wrists and ankles can be shackled. Their heads can also be held in place. A feeding tube is then inserted through the nose to reach the stomach.

The United Nations has called this practice torture, but Colonal Bogdan defends it. Force-feeding has "established itself as a legal and sustainable procedure," he noted. "Politicians instituted it and I have no problem implementing politicians' guidelines."

We're taken to the detention center's kitchen in which several hundred meals are prepared every day. It smells good here. Sam, who runs the kitchen, doesn't want to talk about the hunger strike. Instead, she continues to prepare meals for every one of the 166 prisoners - from meat to vegetarian dishes, so that everyone is satisfied, she says, offering up a sample for us to taste.

Appeals to Obama

View of the outside of Guantanamo, surrounded by barbed wire and a watchtower
Copyright: Gero Schließ/DW

President Obama has again offered hope of getting Guantanamo closed

At Guantanamo, we run into Pardiss Kebriaei, who works as an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. The center has continually called for the closing down of Guantanamo and spoken out against the force-feeding of prisoners. Kebriaei has just met with three of her clients who are hunger-striking. They are in bad condition, she tells us, and can barely walk anymore. They tell her of other prisoners who are now just "skin and bones."

The attorney has put her demands directly to President Obama that he turn his promise into reality. She said most of the prisoners could leave Guantanamo immediately; intelligence authorities had already reviewed them and recommended long ago that they be released. "In his speech, Obama did not mention a time period for their transfer," Kebriaei observed. "We would like him to be more precise, and especially, that the transfer of the prisoners begin immediately. Otherwise, the situation is going to get much worse and prisoners will die."

Growing hope

A large proportion of the 166 prisoners are from Yemen. Obama only recently reversed his ban on sending the detainees back to that country - perhaps a sign that they could return in the next few months. It would be an important, successful step in closing down the facility.

As we leave Guantanamo, we see Air Force One - the plane the president uses - on the airfield. We learn later of a surprise visit by Republican Senator John McCain, who was accompanied by the White House chief of staff. The outspoken opponent of President Obama issued a press release the same day, in which he stressed that closing down Guantanamo would be in the "national interest."

DW.DE