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The debate the world is NOT having about Guantánamo Bay: why don’t countries do more to demand the repatriation of their citizens to help close Guantánamo?

The current hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay enters its third month on 6th April. The Pentagon has gone back on its initial denial and at the beginning of this month put the number of hunger strikers at around 40, with 11 prisoners being force fed to keep them alive. Lawyers have put the figure at closer to 130 of the remaining 166 prisoners throughout.

Solidarity demonstration in London, 4 April 2013

Solidarity demonstration in London, 4 April

While the military has opted to play down the situation, the political response has been silence. A letter signed by all the US lawyers representing prisoners was sent to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on 14 March seeking that he call upon the authorities at Guantánamo Bay “to address the underlying causes of the strike and bring it to a prompt and acceptable end.”

The hunger strike can end any time the authorities so wish, but there has been no response to this letter or any attempt whatsoever to address these underlying causes: “widespread searches of detainees’ Qur’ans” and “increasingly regressive practices at the prison.” This is coupled with the prisoners’ hopelessness and desperation “in the face of 11 years of detention without prospect of release or trial and the continuing inability of the political branches to carry through on their commitment to close the prison in a just manner.”

Having already lost over eleven years of life to indefinite detention without charge or trial, the prisoners have little more to lose than their own body weight and lives. Lawyers have reported that their clients view death as the most viable way out of Guantánamo Bay.

The only independent body with access to the prisoners is the Red Cross (ICRC); frustrated prisoners view it as an extension of the US government and lacking in independence. With its mission to monitor the condition of such prisoners, the ICRC has been largely absent at Guantánamo Bay during this hunger strike, even though it recently brought forward a scheduled visit in response.

Similarly, the states the prisoners come from, which have obligations to their citizens, have not expressed concerns about the situation of their nationals or demanded independent verification of their condition. A recent delegation visiting the last Egyptian prisoner at Guantánamo Bay in March failed to mention the hunger strike.

Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, a US military lawyer who represents several of the men at Guantánamo Bays asks why, if according to the authorities the situation is normal, “officials are not inviting the world to see their prison conditions? Why are only the ICRC allowed in, why no state officials?” Last month, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez reported that he had again been denied access to the prisoners.

Solidarity demonstration in London, 17 March

Solidarity demonstration in London, 17 March

Too often viewed as a solely US problem in a globalised world, each of the prisoners is nonetheless a foreign national; their governments, however, have been as silent over this issue as President Obama. Discussion on transferring prisoners to US mainland prisons is a moot point and a distraction: where else would anyone even entertain the idea of where next to hold individuals held without charge or trial for years? Surely states demanding the repatriation of their nationals who have been cleared for release and are not charged would be a more plausible and viable road out of Guantánamo.

Raising their voices, on 30 March, hundreds of people attended a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Kuwait City to protest the hunger strike and demand the return of the two remaining Kuwaiti prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Fawzi Al-Odah and Fayiz Al-Kandari. Now in their twelfth year of detention without charge or trial, the two men are likely to be among the 48 subject to a 2011 executive order by President Obama instituting perpetual indefinite detention without charge or trial.

Kuwait successfully managed to negotiate the release of the other ten prisoners years ago. It also opened up the lavish Al Salam rehabilitation centre in 2009 at the behest of the Bush administration to house further returnees at a cost of $40 million; it remains unused to date. Although the Emir of Kuwait states that the return of his “sons” is his number one priority, official efforts by the US’ close ally in the Gulf have waned in recent years. Consequently, the Kuwaiti lawyer for the two men brought a lawsuit against the Kuwaiti government last year to force it to act.

Wingard, lawyer for Al-Kandari, describes the situation as “increasingly desperate” and reports that both men have lost over 30lb in weight; he believes that they “will never get a trial, ever”. The course of action states like Kuwait should take is “just to do what the US would do if the situation were reversed, nothing more.”

If governments are not prepared to act, then people must, particularly in the case of Arab and Muslim states, as US policy under the war on terror means that “ you can be indefinitely detained without trial or with inaccurate intelligence: we can detain you or put you in prison or worse, simply because we can.” If that is not enough to motivate people to take action, he urges people to act “on behalf of your own children.”

Concerning the response to Kuwait’s demands, Wingard states that “the US government either does not trust Kuwait or is ignoring it.” This is similar to the position of the British government and its demands for British resident Shaker Aamer to be returned to his British family in London.

A Saudi national, Aamer too has been held for over 11 years without charge or trial and was cleared for release in 2007. One of the first things Gordon Brown did upon becoming prime minister in 2007 was to write to the US Secretary of State demanding the return of five British residents to the UK. Three returned by the end of that year, and the fourth in early 2009.

Curiously, Aamer who has never been charged and is the only foreign national who did not have refugee status, but leave to remain, is the only person who has not returned. No reasons for this have been given by either the British or US governments. High level representations by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary remain unsuccessful. What does this say about the state of the UK-US “special relationship”? Wingard does not consider Guantánamo to be a “past tense situation for Europe”.

With global collusion through extraordinary rendition, intelligence sharing and torture facilitation involved in opening Guantánamo Bay, it will take a global effort to close it. Given the role they have already played, silence is clearly in the interest of most states. The current hunger strike, however, shows that the prisoners and the situation are going nowhere. With a rapidly deteriorating and potentially fatal state of affairs, the US’ allies must act to help close Guantánamo and their citizens must push their governments to do so. Throughout the Obama administration, grass roots activists around the world have led the way; citizen activism must continue to shed light on real alternatives and opportunities to close Guantánamo.

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