We went to Chicago to strategize, to reflect, to look at our structure and internal workings (and unworkings). The plan was to hole up in a convent on the West End, do a lot of exercises like “Allies Spectrum” and “Story Meme” and “Pillars of the Problem.” I think I sort of made up the names of all those exercises just now, but anyone who has been to a strategic planning workshop or a nonprofit retreat knows what I am talking about.
In the course of the weekend, the plan was to use a lot of butcher paper, inhale a lot of marker fumes, drink a lot of beer and plan and strategize and envision a way to shut down Guantánamo, end torture and indefinite detention and ensure accountability for the architects of this illegal and immoral morass.
But, instead of stepping back, we had to step forward.
Turning on the radio the day before we all headed to the Witness Against Torture strategy retreat in the Windy City, many of us heard Democracy Now! reporting that more than 100 men at Guantánamo were entering the fifth week of a new hunger strike. Pardiss Kebriaei was one of the retreat’s guests. A senior staff attorney for Center for Constitutional Rights, Pardiss is a tireless advocate for justice and human rights, and she represents a number of men at Guantánamo. After 11 years of detention and with conditions deteriorating, she said that some of them have lost hope and see no other way to protest their detention and treatment than a hunger strike. CCR has received reports of men coughing up blood, being hospitalized, losing consciousness, and becoming weak and fatigued. Soon, the men on hunger strike will be risking permanent physical injury and even death.
I tried to assimilate this new tragedy. There are 166 men still detained at Guantánamo (more than four years after President Barack Obama pledged to shut down Guantánamo within a year), 86 of whom have been “Cleared for Release” by U.S. authorities. Not charged with any crime of terrorism or violence, they linger in the prison because of the Obama administration’s and Congress’s callous disregard for their basic legal and human rights.
All of the men at Guantánamo — subjected to routine indignities and abuses — are waiting for real justice: their release and resettlement if innocent or the chance to plead their case in a legitimate court of law. These basic rights have been denied them for far too long. In fact, more men have died at Guantánamo (nine) than have had trial and judgment (seven). While President Obama has failed to close the Guantánamo prison in the last four years, he has closed something: in January he shut down the office within the State Department that was tasked with shutting down Guantánamo and repatriating and resettling released detainees.
One of the detainees cleared for release, a Yemeni named Adnan Latif, died in September 2012 at Guantánamo. He described the place that was his home for nearly 10 years as a “piece of hell that kills everything.”
With those words ringing in my ears, I packed my bags and headed for our meetings. We established Witness Against Torture in 2005 with a brazen act — 25 of us flew to Cuba, walked more than 60 miles over five or six days with the hope of gaining access to the U.S. Naval Base where more than 700 men were then detained. The Naval Base authorities denied our requests for entry and so we fasted and vigiled for five days, before returning home to organize a movement to shut down Guantánamo, end torture and indefinite detention. Since that time we have organized actions and demonstrations every January 11, the date in 2002 when the first “unlawful enemy combatants” arrived at Guantánamo. The American people have since learned the truth — the vast majority of these men were not the “worst of the worst,” as Bush administration officials claimed. They were chicken farmers, illiterate tribesmen and well-traveled, well-meaning students: 93 percent of the men at Guantánamo were captured by bounty hunters or allied governments such as Pakistan and handed over to U.S. forces, according to a study by Mark Denbeaux, a professor at Seton Hall Law School.
Each year after January 11, we say goodbye and tell each other that we hope not to have to organize again the next year. And each year, we come together again — happy to see one another, angry and outraged that we have to protest something so inhumane and abhorrent as torture and indefinite detention.
In Chicago, we did not form a board or write our mission statement or develop a strategic plan for the next four years, but we did come up with a plan to fast and demonstrate throughout the week before Easter — Holy Week in the Christian tradition. We’re calling it Hungering for Justice, and we hope you will join us.