Until freedom or death? Hunger-strikers from Guantanamo to Israel

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Violent force-feeding might not work when hunger-strikers refuse food for a purpose.

Nevertheless, it is a method being used by prison authorities in an attempt to deal with prominent hunger-striking prisoners in the news this week.

Guantanamo: Shaker Aamer

Saudi-born British resident Shaker Aamer has been held without charge in Guantanamo Bay for 11 years. Along with half the prison population, Aamer is starving himself in protest at his indefinite confinement.

Set up on U.S.-occupied Cuban territory, Guantanamo has been repeatedly exposed for the scandal of detaining prisoners without trial.

Aamer’s story has aroused anger over what is happening inside Guantanamo.

The detainee has spent most of his time in solitary confinement, despite him being cleared for release six years ago, and U.S. authorities now accepting that there is no case against him.

The British parliament met on Wednesday to debate whether Aamer – the last British resident to be held at the camp – could return to the United Kingdom following an e-petition with 117,000 signatures.

According to documents published in the Guantanamo Bay files leak, the U.S. military Joint Task Force Guantanamo believed in November 2007 that Aamer had led a unit of fighters in Afghanistan, where he was captured in 2001. However, he has never been charged with any wrongdoing or received a trial.

Although U.S. authorities say the number of hunger-strikers has reached 84 out of 166 prisoners, lawyers for the detainees estimate the real figure to be between 130 and 140, according to Reprieve, a London-based advocacy group monitoring Guantanamo detainee cases, including Aamer’s.

When Aamer described the treatment to which he has been subjected since deciding to strike in February, he told his lawyer: “They are killing us, so it is hard to keep calm... in reality, I am dying inside.”

In a telephone interview with UK-based newspaper The Observer earlier this month, Aamer said: “I hope I do not die in this awful place. I want to hug my children and watch them as they grow. But if it is God’s will that I should die here, I want to die with dignity.”

He has told his lawyer how British MI6 officers were present when he was brutally assaulted and interrogated at Bagram air base in Afghanistan – where he was known as “Prisoner No  5.”

He was also present when Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, whose statements were used to justify the Iraq war, was interrogated by U.S. forces.

Libi was tortured at Bagram into alleging that Saddam Hussein was training al-Qaeda terrorists – “bogus claims... used to justify the invasion of Iraq,” writes Guardian columnist Seumas Milne.

“Shaker’s own government has been saying that they want him back home to his family where he belongs, yet unfortunately there are subversive forces even in the UK who have a different agenda,” said his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith.

“Some MI6 agents want him to go to Saudi Arabia, where he won’t be able to talk any more to the Metropolitan police about all the things he has witnessed.

“But a man who has been effectively declared innocent cannot be locked away forever to save national embarrassment. Shaker must be returned to London at once.”

While debate over Aamer’s release is ongoing, he continues his hunger strike, which he began earlier this year.

“He’s lost over 30 pounds,” Smith said.

Inside Guantanamo, 16 detainees are reportedly being violently force-fed, and soldiers last week used rubber bullets against “non-compliant” prisoners, The Guardian reported on Tuesday.

Israel: Samer Issawi

Force-feeding cases have recently been reported in Israeli jails, during lengthy hunger-strikes by Palestinian prisoners.

On Monday, Israel said it reached a deal with Palestinian prisoner Samer Issawi to end a hunger strike in return for a reduction in the amount of time he faces in jail.

His strike, which he launched in August 2012, involved him only taking water, vitamins, minerals and sugars. He rapidly lost weight, and his lawyer said doctors had warned that his life was in imminent danger.

In December 2012, Issawi’s sister said she last saw her brother during a court appearance in December. “He weighed only 47kg… He was just skin and bones. He could barely even speak.”

But he ended the strike in a deal to be released at the end of the year, after initially facing the prospect of serving an entire 26-year sentence originally imposed in 2002.

He was jailed for shooting attacks on Israeli vehicles, released in a prisoner exchange, and later rearrested for violating the terms of his release.

“An agreement has been reached, in which Samer Issawi will serve 17 and a half months, starting from the day of his arrest for the violation of the conditions of his release,” the Israeli military said in a statement.

Issawi “felt no other way to challenge the military justice system,” said Deborah Hyams, Amnesty International researcher on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

“But trying to unpick the deal is also a bit complicated. He was initially held under orders from a military committee with secret evidence that wasn’t shared with him or a lawyer to justify his re-arrest,” she added.

During his strike, some of Issawi’s supporters said he was being force-fed through an intravenous tube, but reports from prison indicated that he had even stopped all nutrients and water, and that he faced imminent death. This is what many analysts believe led to his release deal.

The hunger strike “forced the Israeli side to reverse their position,” said attorney Jawad Bulous, The Associated Press reported.

However, his life is still in danger, said Hyams: “When you engage in such a prolonged hunger strike, the whole re-feeding process is very delicate. Issawi is in no way out of the woods.”

Issawi’s case ultimately shows the effectiveness of the hunger strike, and the power it gives the hunger-striker facing judicial, diplomatic and human challenges.

“The fact that we’ve seen continuing strikes by Palestinian detainees, those held without charge or trial and are under administrative detention, is a big indication they feel it’s their only option,” said Hyams.

Egypt: Ouda Tarabin

An Israeli prisoner in Egypt now hopes he will be heard.

“I am the only one who is paying the price of the revenge and hatred for the State of Israel and the prime minister that come from the Egyptian government and those who head it,” wrote Ouda Tarabin in a letter to Israel’s ambassador in Cairo, The Times of Israel reported.

Tarabin has been held for over 12 years in an Egyptian prison, on charges of spying that he denies. He said he is starting a hunger strike in protest at both the Egyptian and Israeli authorities.

He believes that they have failed to bring about his release, and that Israel has violated its commitments to him. He has asked for his letter to be sent to Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Hunger strikers feel engaging in a strike is a non-violent means of protest and the only way of being heard,” said Hyams.

Tarabin’s release was lobbied for by Israel in October 2011 as part of the deal negotiated for the release of Ilan Grapel, but the deal fell through.

Grapel, a law student with dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship, was jailed for five months on espionage charges, before being released in exchange for 25 Egyptian prisoners.

In 2000, the 19-year-old Israeli Bedouin was captured by Egyptian forces after he illegally crossed the border. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison under Egypt’s emergency laws, after being tried for espionage in absentia in a military court.

In July 2012, Tarabin announced plans to file a lawsuit against the Egyptian government at the International Criminal Court for unlawful arrest.

He demands his release and compensation of $100 million.

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