New York Times editorial: The hunger strike that has spread since early February among the 166 detainees still at Guantánamo Bay is again exposing the lawlessness of the system that marooned them there. The government claims that around 40 detainees are taking part. Lawyers for detainees report that their clients say around 130 detainees in one part of the prison have taken part.
The number matters less than the nature of the protest, however: this is a collective act of despair. Prisoners on the hunger strike say that they would rather die than remain in the purgatory of indefinite detention. Only three prisoners now at Guantánamo have been found guilty of any crime, yet the others also are locked away, with dwindling hope of ever being released.
Detainees there have gone on hunger strikes many times since the facility opened in 2002. A major strike in 2005 involved more than 200 detainees. But those earlier actions were largely about the brutality of treatment the detainees received. The protest this time seems more fundamental. Gen. John Kelly of the Marines, whose Southern Command oversees Guantánamo Bay, explained the motivation of the detainees at a Congressional hearing last month by saying, “They had great optimism that Guantánamo would be closed” based on President Obama’s pledge in his first campaign, but they are now “devastated” that nothing has changed.
For 86 detainees, this is a particular outrage. They were approved for release three years ago by a government task force, which included civilian and military agencies responsible for national security.
But Congress outrageously has limited the president’s options in releasing them, through a statute that makes it very difficult to use federal money to transfer Guantánamo prisoners anywhere. Fifty-six of those approved for release are Yemenis. The government, however, has said it will not release them to Yemen for the “foreseeable future,” apparently because they might fall under the influence of people antagonistic to the United States. That false logic would mean that no Yemenis could ever travel to this country, but that is not the case.
The other 30 detainees approved for release are from different countries, though the government will not say where they are from. Over the past decade, the government has sent detainees to at least 52 countries, The Times and NPR have determined, so it surely can find countries to take detainees who cannot be returned home.
As for the remaining 80 prisoners, the three who have been convicted and the 30 or so who are subjects of active cases or investigations can be transferred to a military or civilian prison. The rest are in indefinite detention — a legal limbo in which they are considered by the government to be too dangerous to release and too difficult to prosecute. Such detention is the essence of what has been wrong with Guantánamo from the start. The cases of these detainees must be reviewed and resolved according to the rule of law.
The government is force-feeding at least 10 of the hunger strikers. International agreements among doctors say doctors must respect a striker’s decision if he makes “an informed and voluntary refusal” to eat. But under American policy, Guantánamo doctors cannot adhere to those principles. The Obama administration justifies the force-feeding of detainees as protecting their safety and welfare. But the truly humane response to this crisis is to free prisoners who have been approved for release, end indefinite detention and close the prison at Guantánamo.