Starving to death in prison
Fadhel Hussein Saleh Hentif is one of about 100 detainees on a hunger strike in the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was captured in 2001 by Pakistanis after crossing the border from Afghanistan, and, by 2002, he was in the U.S. naval detention facility. He was 20 years old. He has been there since.
Although the United States contends that Hentif left his home in Yemen to become an al-Qaida jihadist, he has always insisted he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. A devout Muslim, he says he went to Afghanistan to do charitable work to honor the memory of his father — and that he then left Afghanistan for Pakistan because, as one of his lawyers, Robert Palmer, put it to me recently, “the place was a mess.”
Like most Guantanamo detainees, Hentif spent years in solitary confinement. He was subjected to “alternative interrogation techniques,” as it was euphemistically called. He watched the Bush administration release more than 500 of the 779 detainees who have passed through Guantanamo. He learned about lawyers arguing in court that the detainees had the legal right to a habeas corpus hearing — that is, to try to prove that they were not enemy combatants and had been detained illegally.
And, in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that they did have that right. That same year, a presidential candidate headed toward the White House, Barack Obama, promised to close Guantanamo. That never happened, though President Obama continued the Bush policy of releasing detainees who were not deemed a threat to the United States.
Hentif, in fact, was among those set to be released. In late 2009, he was hours away from flying home to Yemen when a man on a flight to Detroit tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear. Because the man had purportedly been trained by an al-Qaida affiliate with bases in Yemen, Congress demanded that the administration stop releasing all Yemen detainees. Obama complied.
And so it went: Hentif had a habeas corpus hearing in 2010, but, by then, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had made a mockery of the Supreme Court’s ruling, establishing evidentiary presumptions that made it impossible for a detainee to win a habeas ruling. (The Supreme Court has declined to hear further cases.) Sure enough, the judge ruled against him in 2012, despite concluding, among other things, that Hentif had never been to an al-Qaida training camp, as the government alleged.
Meanwhile, along with 55 other Yemen detainees, he has been placed on a “cleared” list compiled by a commission composed of national security officials, meaning he could be transferred out of Guantanamo. But Congress, led by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, quickly passed laws that put impossible conditions on their release. Shamefully, Obama signed those bills.
Is there any wonder that Hentif — and the other detainees — are on a hunger strike? “It is a total expression of despair and hopelessness,” said Brent Rushforth, who also represents him.
It is impossible to know for sure what triggered the hunger strike. Lawyers for the detainees say that the military, after years of loosening the reins — including eliminating solitary confinement for many prisoners — was tightening the screws again for no reason. The military insists that its procedures did not change but that the detainees had begun breaking and covering cameras and refusing demands that they stop doing so.
On April 13, with the hunger strike spreading, the military raided the prison and put the detainees back in solitary. It says it has done so because the detainees are more likely to eat if they are not surrounded by other hunger strikers. If so, it isn’t working; there are more detainees refusing food today than before the April 13 raid. To force food into them, the military now shoves a tube down their nose, in an extremely painful procedure it called “enteral feeding.”
Are there terrorists at Guantanamo? Yes. The government knows who they are and keeps them away from the other detainees. But the hunger strike is a vivid reminder that Guantanamo remains exactly what it has always been: a stain on our country.
On April 13, Hentif was returning from morning prayers when the raid began. He was pushed up against a fence and shot with rubber bullets at such close range that five of them penetrated the skin. He was handcuffed and taken to the clinic. Now back in solitary confinement, he is worried that one of his wounds is becoming infected. Given their concerns about hunger strikers, the military medical staff hasn’t been able to pay him much attention.
Thus it was that one more time, Fadhel Hussein Saleh Hentif was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.