Is This The Fast That We Desired? The Hunger Strike at Guantanamo’s 100th Day



“Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” (Isaiah 58:3). We know these questions as those of the Israelites in the book of Isaiah dismayed that God had not responded to their penance, but in light of today – the 100th day of the hunger strike at the prison at Guantanamo Bay – these questions take on a new relevance. 102 of the 166 men currently detained in Guantanamo are participating in a hunger strike to challenge their treatment and their continued detention. The questions confront us today: do we not see? Do we pay no heed? And, perhaps more pressing, is this the fast that we desired?

The first detainees arrived at the U.S. Military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in early 2002. Since that time 779 men have been detained there, most without ever being charged with a crime. 86% of the detainees held at Guantanamo were turned over to U.S. forces in exchange for cash bounties; according to government data 92% were never al Qaeda fighters. 166 men remain there today, 86 have been cleared for transfer. 102 are hunger striking, 30 are being force-fed. While there has been outcry among Americans about the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, it has never been strong or sustained enough to finally close the prison. Is this the fast that we desired?

Despite the successful transfer of over 500 detainees during the Bush administration, in recent years Congress has increasingly blocked attempts to transfer detainees and close the prison. One such obstacle, known as transfer restrictions, prohibits the government from transferring anyone from Guantanamo to the United States for trial. Another, known as certification requirements, dictates that any country that the U.S. might wish to transfer a prisoner to for trial must meet very strict requirements, making it incredibly difficult to transfer detainees to most countries in the world. These restrictions have been renewed every year for the last four years in the National Defense Authorization Act and may be proposed again in this year’s bill. Is this the fast that they desired?

However, despite these roadblocks the President could still do more to fulfill his promise, made during his first campaign and reaffirmed numerous times, to close Guantanamo. A number of advocacy groups have tried to increase pressure on the President to act, outlining two concrete actions he could take. One is to appoint a senior point person so that the Administration’s Guantanamo closure policy is directed by the White House. The other is to order the Secretary of Defense to start certifying for transfer detainees who have been cleared despite the added burden of the certification requirements. While he has given vocal support to Guantanamo’s closure, the President has yet to take these actions. Is this the fast that he desired?

The passage from Isaiah ends with a list of concrete, material actions that our fasts should motivate us to do. Will the hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay be enough to mobilize us as citizens and motivate our leaders to finally take steps to end this dark chapter in American history?  To mark the 100th day of the hunger strike the National Religious Campaign Against Torture – of which the Union for Reform Judaism is a founding member – is sponsoring a “Weekend of Action.”  Check out their resource page for suggestions on how to make this goal a reality.

 

Image Courtesy of Spencer Platt, Getty Images

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About Benny Witkovsky

Benny Witkovsky is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant, he is from Madison, WI, and recently graduated from Vassar College.

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