Last week the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and spokesman for the regime, was released from the US prison camp in Guantanamo Bay and sent home — a free man — at the request of Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
British prime minister Tony Blair is either unable or unwilling to get the same treatment for the nine British residents whose families have been pleading for the foreign office to take up their cases for three years.
Where are the MPs ready to raise this human rights issue prominently at the Labour Party conference? The family of one of the prisoners, Omar Deghayes, has called a protest on the first day of the conference.
Tony Blair should meet them himself. The detainees’ families, including several children with British passports, have been in a hellish limbo they have done nothing to deserve, for nearly three years.
The British residents’ names should be well known here by now — Shaker Ameer, Jamil el-Banna, Bisher Al Rawi, Omar Deghayes, Jamal Abdullah, Jamal Kiyemba, Khalid Hatair and Binyam Mohammed.
With the horror of a six week old hunger strike increasing by the day, the official British position of studied indifference to the degrading and completely illegal situation in Guantanamo is an outrage.
Some of the young British residents are among the reported 210 hunger strikers.
They have invoked the example of Bobby Sands as their model — choosing a principled death instead of the torture, humiliation, desecration of their religious effects, lack of decent food and water, refusal of legal redress and regular contact with their families, which is their life.
The US does not want to see a repeat of the 1981 IRA hunger strike in which ten men died, or the 1996 strike of political prisoners in Turkey in which 12 men died.
The military authorities have admitted to force feeding 18 of the men who are in hospital, and have reluctantly conceded that the number of men on hunger strike has risen from 76 to 89 and, most recently, to 128.
Only in the past year, after determined litigation from lawyers in some of the most prestigious law firms in the US, have internal government memoranda been released under the Freedom of Information Act.
And from interviews with their clients in Guantanamo it has emerged how appalling the conditions of the prison camp are, and also that there have been many hunger strikes and protests since 2002.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has long since judged that the indefinite detention and current conditions at Guantanamo are “tantamount to torture”.
The early protests were usually sparked by soldiers deliberately dropping or kicking the Qur’an in order to provoke the prisoners on their most sensitive point.
The central issue now is that the US government has not allowed a single fair hearing for any prisoner, even after the US supreme court issued its decision in the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ case, Rasul versus Bush in June 2004.
This gave the prisoners the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in federal court.
Lawyers for the prisoners have been tied up ever since in a series of appeals and counter appeals to different levels of court to get the hearings the supreme court promised.
But the intense politicisation of the US judiciary under president George Bush has meant that the department of defence lawyers have so far managed to defy the supreme court.
According to lawyers from the well known firm Shearman & Sterling, the prisoners described the June/July 2005 hunger strike as follows:
- The protest was “a peaceful, non-violent strike until demands are met”.
- The strike called “for starvation until death”.
- The prisoners planned to boycott showers.
- They planned to boycott their recreation time.
- Some prisoners planned on refusing to wear clothes in order to be equal to the living conditions of prisoners in other camps who are denied clothing.
- The protesters called for “no violence, by hand or even words, to anyone, including guards”.
- We need to see sunlight, and not to be forced to go months without seeing daylight.
- “We need to know why we are in Camp 5 for so long, in some cases for over a year. What have the Camp 5 detainees done to be treated so much worse than the other detainees?”
- “We need basic human rights like everyone else in the world — including real, effective medical treatment.”
- “We need to be able to contact our families, and write to them and receive letters.”
Some prisoners have not received any of the letters sent by their families, their families have not received any of the prisoners’ recent letters, and this is a widespread problem across the camp.
Some new individual stories highlight the debased culture among the authorities at Guantanamo, which has been repeatedly reported by released prisoners in many countries.
For instance, Jarallah al-Marri was hospitalised as a result of his participation in the June/July hunger strike and a deteriorating heart condition, and was placed on an IV drip.
He told his lawyer, Jonathan Hafetz of Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, that the government got a nurse to make sexual advances towards him while he was lying in his hospital bed. This was a vain attempt to convince him to give up his hunger strike.
Mr al-Marri had been in solitary confinement for over 16 months, and often goes as long as three weeks without being allowed outside his cell for recreation.
The lights in Mr al-Marri’s cell remain on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and he has been denied adequate bedding and clothing. Mr Al-Marri is able to sleep only two hours a night.
The prisoners’ protests have become progressively more serious, with the current series of hunger strikes resulting in an unknown number of detainees slipping into comas.
The US military has made strenuous efforts to conceal the scope and significance of the protests.
The current strike began again in mid-August, after the department of defence reneged on promises to implement the Geneva Conventions.
Prisoners have refused to sign the department’s “hunger strike waiver form”, and additional waivers forced upon them for previously refusing IV treatments.
Prisoner mistreatment, which had been rife during the July strike, returned very soon and in early August military personnel beat several prisoners.
According to British resident Shaker Ameer, when the August strike began the department of defence placed the representative members of the “Prisoners’ Council” in isolation.
The department continues to refuse independent investigators access to Guantanamo and the prisoners, preventing any public assessment of the detention and treatment of men in US military custody.
Guided tours for US senate members and others have given a deliberately selective and misleading impression, according to the men’s lawyers.
It is high time Blair demanded access for a delegation of independent British lawyers to visit all the camps at Guantanamo. They should then bring the nine residents home.
Victoria Brittain is co-author of the acclaimed play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom