Guantanamo detainee says prison ‘shakedown’ sparked hunger strike
WASHINGTON — Obaidullah, an Afghan villager captured with diagrams of improvised bombs, has marked nearly 11 years as a detainee at the U.S. naval base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Three months ago, outraged by what he called another prison “shakedown,” he joined a hunger strike there, and now is locked in solitary confinement with at least 100 fellow detainees.
“I have seen men who are on the verge of death being taken away to be force-fed,” Obaidullah said in a federal court affidavit declassified Friday. “I have also seen some men coughing up blood, being hospitalized, losing consciousness, becoming weak and fatigued.”
His observations are the most extensive yet by a detainee about conditions at the military prison and what prompted the hunger strike. He and others tell of a Feb. 6 search when guards confiscated toiletries, family pictures and copies of the Koran. For the detainees, the trigger was “U.S. soldiers rifling through the pages of many Korans and handling them roughly.”
Military officials said about four dozen doctors and nurses had been deployed to Guantanamo Bay to help the detainees stay alive and maybe start eating again. And Col. John Bogdan, who runs the prison, recently told reporters that the raid, which he defended, unearthed contraband including crudely fashioned weapons made out of mop handles.
Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the prison spokesman, said the raid occurred after a routine change of some of the guard staff, but he denied that detainees or Korans were mistreated.
“Detainees will often cite any change, real or perceived, as a cause for protest,” he said. This time, he added, “the detainees have chosen one routine search in early February as the rallying point for their grievances.”
Obaidullah has lost about 55 pounds, down from 167. He drinks two cans of Ensure nutritional supplement each day rather than be tied to a bed with feeding tubes snaked down his nose and into his stomach, as some detainees are. In his affidavit, he described widespread depression among prisoners. “I still do not know my fate,” he said.
The deteriorating situation drew renewed attention this week from President Obama, who has been blocked by bipartisan congressional votes in his effort to close the Guantanamo prison since taking office more than four years ago. On Tuesday, Obama said the prison was “not sustainable” and once again urged Congress to grant him the authority to shut it.
Prison officials said 100 of the 166 detainees left at Guantanamo were engaged in some form in the hunger strike, with two dozen being force-fed. Officials have also acknowledged that much of the detainees’ angst is over their lost hope of the prison ever closing.
Defense lawyers believe there may be as many as 130 refusing to eat and that a compromise could be reached if the Korans were returned to the prisoners.
Carlos Warner, an attorney for Fayiz al Kandari of Kuwait, a suspected Al Qaeda propagandist, said he was shocked when he saw his client in March. “He couldn’t stand; he’d lost over 30 pounds; his cheeks were sunken,” Warner said.
He spoke with him by phone a week ago, and Al Kandari, 36, described the tube feeding as feeling like “razor blades passing through you.” Nevertheless, Al Kandari pledged to “go all the way,” and told his attorney: “This is a peaceful hunger strike. They won’t let us live in peace, they won’t give us a trial, and now they won’t let us die in peace.”
Yasin Qasem Ismail, an Afghan, was captured on suspicion of taking extensive weapons training at an Al Qaeda facility. He was visited March 5 by his Washington attorney, David Remes. The lawyer took notes of their conversation. “Many of the detainees are desperate,” Remes wrote down. “They feel like they’re living in graves.”
Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, is helping to represent eight detainees, seven of whom are refusing food. She said she had visited them in detention and received letters from them, and that their overall message is: “We don’t want to die. We want to be released. And we don’t see any other way of being heard.”
Kebriaei added that Obama’s recent comments “may have changed the feelings down there,” but she believes that it will take some intervention from senior Defense Department officials or the White House soon to address conditions at the prison. Otherwise, she said, “we could be seeing some deaths soon.”
Obaidullah, who goes only by the one name, was captured in July 2002 by U.S. forces in Khowst, Afghanistan. The soldiers found some mines buried in a field, and when they stopped Obaidullah, he had a notebook with diagrams of roadside bombs, officials said.
He is in his early 30s, and had always steered away from other, short-lived hunger strikes at the prison. But this time was different.
“I have been moved to take action,” he said in his legal declaration. “Eleven years of my life have been taken from me, and now by the latest actions of the authorities, they have also taken my dignity and disrespected my religion.”
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