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Guantanamo's growing hunger strike. Why now?
More than 30 of the detention facility's 166 captives are refusing to eat
 
A guard walks through a cellblock on March 5 inside Camp V, Guantanamo Bay.
A guard walks through a cellblock on March 5 inside Camp V, Guantanamo Bay. REUTERS/Bob Strong

The Red Cross rushed two representatives to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, this week to check on terrorism suspects who have joined a growing hunger strike at the U.S. detention facility there. At least 31 of the 166 captives still being held at the American Navy base at Guantanamo are reportedly refusing to eat to protest conditions at the prison; 11 are receiving nourishment through feeding tubes, and three have been hospitalized. A Red Cross spokesman says the hunger strike is linked to the detainees' open-ended state of limbo — only six are facing trials by military commission (for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen).

The Navy is scrambling to muster medical personnel to fly from the U.S. to help deal with the crisis in case "the hunger strike significantly expands in scope and duration," says Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the detention center spokesman. The news of the strike has revived debate over whether the U.S. should be keeping the prisoners there at all. In the 2008 campaign, President Obama promised to close the prison camp. A majority of the men detained there — about 90 of them — have been cleared for release, but are being prevented from leaving due to red tape imposed by Congress, and instability in their home countries.

The question is, what's behind the sudden and growing protest? Durand tells The New York Times that the strike is an "orchestrated event intended to garner media attention." Gen. John F. Kelly, the Marine Corps commander overseeing Guantanamo, says the hunger strikers are also frustrated because they "had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed," and they're frustrated because that didn't happen. Carlos Warner, a public defender representing two hunger strikers and nine other Guantanamo detainees, disagrees, saying that one reason detainees are desperate is that conditions at the facility are "dire."

The detainees' stunt "is working as planned," says Robert Johnson at Business Insider. The detainees reportedly claim they launched the strike when "a guard allegedly defiled a Koran during cell inspections." But the guards there follow strict protocols to respect the detainees' Muslim faith. Their jobs are difficult enough, so it's hard to believe they'd do something to create a crisis for no reason.

While indefinite detainment without trial may be morally offensive, the overriding philosophy on base these days is to treat the detainees really well. Compliant detainees enjoy a selection of six balanced meals, 25 cable TV channels, classes, and an array of electronic gadgetry and entertainment. Seriously, I'm talking about a Nintendo DS for every compliant detainee, plus Playstation 3 access with a library full of video games.

Conditions at Guantanamo are absurdly good for the simple reason of getting the media to leave them alone. [Business Insider]

To Guantanamo's critics, though, that sounds like propaganda. "Nobody doubts that conditions at the camp have improved in many ways from its darkest days of 2002 through 2005," says Glenn Greenwald at Britain's Guardian. "But it is reckless in the extreme to resolve conflicting claims about detainee treatment in favor of the military, and to proclaim detainee grievances baseless... And it's nothing short of demented to talk about Guantanamo as anything other than a shameful travesty."

Whatever is true about the camp, the vast majority of those detainees have been kept in a cage for years — some more than a decade — without so much as having been charged with anything. They haven't seen their families in years. Ten prisoners have died at the camp, the latest one just four months ago under very suspicious circumstances (the military claims that resort guest, despite all his luxurious amenities, committed suicide). At least half a dozen other resort guests have killed themselves, the latest being (if not the November 2012 death) in mid-2011. [Guardian]

 
Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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