Will Trump Allow Gitmo Prisoners to Kill Themselves?

Referencing the Guantanamo Bay prison, President Trump once said he planned to "load it up with some bad dudes."

More than a year later, reports from inside the prison point to a climate of growing desperation and cruelty.

News of hunger strikes from Guantanamo have emerged in the last two weeks, though it is unclear exactly how many prisoners are now on strike because of the dearth of information flowing out of the prison.

But for those on strike, rather than feeding the inmates through a tube, Guantanamo authorities appear prepared to allow striking prisoners to suffer serious organ failure — or possibly even death.

A detainee is placed on a gurney by Marines in Camp X-Ray February 6, 2002 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Chris Hondros/Getty

Khalid Qassim, a Yemeni prisoner who's been held for 15 years without charge or trial, told his attorney from the anti-torture organization Reprieve, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, that "they have decided to leave us to waste away and die instead."

Sullivan-Bennis told The Guardian recently that the policy was brought on by a new medical officer in charge as of September 20.

But of course, what the prisoners are ultimately asking for is justice, not force feeding — something that seems to be increasingly out of reach under the Trump administration.

Another "forever prisoner" at Guantanamo is Ahmed Rabbani, who's been on hunger strike since 2013 and who's been subjected to horrendous torture in CIA custody after being confused with a notorious terrorist, Hassan Ghul.

To learn more about the hunger strikers in Guantanamo, I spoke with Eric Lewis, chairman of Reprieve U.S. and co-counsel for Rabbani, who says he now weighs just 95 pounds.

Lewis reiterated that under the new medical officer, "the policy in a nutshell is, if you don't want to eat and you want to starve to death, go ahead." Lewis said that medical staff at the prison "don't seem to be medically monitoring" the strikers, and that "the policy used to be that if your body weight went under 85 percent, they would feed you enterally" — that is, by force feeding — something which has changed in recent weeks.

When I asked him whether the government would actually let prisoners at Guantanamo die, Lewis answered, "I don't think they want to do that, but I don't think they are good enough to really manage the process. So I wouldn't rule it out."

In other words, the only way out of Guantanamo might be for the prisoners to starve to death on the government's watch.

A lack of access to Rabbani has made it difficult to monitor his condition, and a recently filed affidavit by the senior medical officer in question disputed Rabbani's claims. However, Lewis said that Rabbani is in an "acute state of distress," eating less than 300 calories of fruit a day. Lewis added that Rabbani's exact weight is unclear, but that "what is clear is that he has been on prolonged hunger strike, he is severely underweight and decompensating, and the [U.S. government] controls all the information."

This is why Lewis and his co-counsel filed an injunction asking, among other things, for regular updates on Rabbani's condition, including his vitals and his weight. Lewis added that "we want an independent medical examination, and we are asking that if they are going to feed him, that it be in a humane manner."

While prison officials may let the prisoners die, this isn't the goal of the hunger striking prisoners — including Rabbani, who Lewis said "doesn't want to die, but he doesn't want to be forgotten and he wants attention called to his situation."

There are 41 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo — 26 of whom, like Qassim and Rabbani, have never been charged with or convicted of a crime. These indefinitely detained inmates are sometimes called "forever prisoners."

Altogether, a total of 779 men have been held in Guantanamo, all of them Muslim. Rather than being captured on the battlefield, most of them — 86 percent, according to the Center on Constitutional Rights — were seized "during a time when the U.S. military was offering large bounties" that unscrupulous Pakistanis and Afghans may have exploited to settle scores or make money by selling unsuspecting detainees to the United States. Furthermore, only 8 of these prisoners have been convicted in Guantanamo's military commissions in over 15 years — a figure exceeded by the 9 who've died there.

The Trump administration has already made clear it has no intention of carrying out the previous administration's order to close the prison. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eliminated the special envoy charged with closing the facility. And according to Lewis, Periodic Review Boards — the bodies through which many past Guantanamo prisoners were cleared for release — have come to a halt, with "no current efforts to repatriate anyone."

Equally worrying is the announcement of an additional $500 million of spending for construction at the base — another indication that the Guantanamo Bay prison has become a permanent fixture of the war on terror, leaving detainees with little hope of ever leaving its walls.

In these desperate conditions, hunger striking at Guantanamo is nothing new. In a truly Orwellian twist, journalist Carol Rosenberg reported in 2014, the U.S. government had even begun referring to the strikes as " long-term non-religious fasting."

It is the U.S. government's failure to implement justice that has led to the hunger strikes. Muslim prisoners who have constantly been vilified in the War on Terror are using this last, dangerous form of resistance — despite the personal harm it's causing them — to re-claim ownership over their bodies in a system that has denied them all other levels of agency.

If the hunger strikes continue and the new policy remains, Guantanamo prisoners may be facing death sooner than later. Justice has never been equally applied to everyone by the U.S. government, but the fate of these prisoners will determine just how far the government is willing to go to dehumanize foreign-born Muslims in its custody.

This might be the new face of American justice in Guantanamo. But obtaining justice should never come at the expense of life — for Muslims or anyone else.

"I will get out of here one way or the other," Rabbani told one of his other attorneys — "either when I am freed from prison, or when I am freed from the bondage of this life, and I leave in a coffin."

Maha Hilal is the Michael Ratner Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She's also a steering committee member of DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, an organizer with Witness Against Torture and a board member of the DC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.