Empty beds, empty stomachs

Gitmo, as it has become known, still remains in a sort legal limbo. I had wondered what had happened since the Supreme Court ruling in June last year, the Economist clarifies:

Earlier this summer, there was talk of Guantánamo being shut down. Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called it a “national disgraceâ€? and “the primary recruiting tool for our enemiesâ€?. George Bush also seemed to wobble on the issue. But Mr Rumsfeld, who has just spent $100m refurbishing the camp, has never wavered from the idea that America needs a place to hold people indefinitely. If you want to create a “legal black holeâ€?, to use the words of a British law lord, it is certainly a lot easier to do so outside the American mainland.

But what about the Supreme Court’s ruling in June last year giving Guantánamo detainees the right to challenge their detention in American courts? The justices, alas, did not give any details as to how this could happen. The administration promptly set up review panels to determine whether detainees had been rightly designated as “enemy combatantsâ€?; all but 38 of the 558 detainees had their status confirmed. Banned from attending the proceedings, their lawyers have dismissed them as a sham.

Dozens of habeas corpus lawsuits are working their way up through the federal courts. In January this year, a Washington, DC, district court judge ruled that the detainees were entitled to challenge their detention in normal courts. But a few days later, another district court judge issued a contradictory ruling. Both sides have appealed (oral arguments were heard by the DC appeals court this month), but the issue will surely go to the Supreme Court.

What appears to have gone largely unreported is that many of the current ‘prisoners’ are on hunger strike.

Over the past month, more than 100 detainees have been on hunger strike in protest against their indefinite detention without charge. Many have been held for nearly four years. A military spokesman said this week that 85 were still refusing food, including 15 hardliners who were undergoing “involuntary feedingâ€? in hospital. Preventing prisoners from harming themselves was part of “standard operating proceduresâ€? in both American civilian and military prisons, he said.

Although not specifically banned under international law, force-feeding of prisoners is prohibited under the World Medical Association’s 1975 Declaration of Tokyo, which has been endorsed by the American Medical Association. The International Committee of the Red Cross also strongly advises against it. Its use in Guantánamo is likely to further enflame anti-American sentiment among Muslims; on the other hand, it may be preferable to a succession of deaths in Guantánamo.

I tend to agree with comments Ann-Marie Slaughter made at the Terrorism and Security Conference in Washington earlier this month – Gitmo is essentially America shooting itself in the foot, do as we say but not as we do.