STAND FAST FOR JUSTICE
When I woke up on Monday morning 22nd July 2013 it wasn’t part of the week’s plan to go on hunger strike. I had been following a friend Clive Stafford –Smith, human rights lawyer at Reprieve on Twitter when he announced an initiative called Stand Fast For Justice to draw attention to the plight of his client Shaker Aamer, held at the notorious Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre, Cuba.
Shaker is the only remaining British resident in Guantanamo Bay, cleared for release but still held, his case can be read on the following link http://www.reprieve.org.uk/cases/shakeraamer/ The idea was to pledge a few hours or days without food in solidarity with those at “Gitmo” that had begun their hunger strike months ago to protest their conditions and were now being forcibly fed by doctors at the camp.
Clive, leading by example, had tweeted his week without food, with the comedian Frankie Boyle taking up the mantel when his 7 days ended. This fast has now become a continuous and ever growing communal act of support for those deprived of their freedom, families and many basic human rights.
A chance sighting of a tweet to Clive which read “ordinary people should join in too” hit home with me on that Monday morning. I had intended to pledge time, so what was I waiting for. I had eaten my last meal on Sunday evening, hadn’t yet had breakfast… I would start my fast immediately.
Why did I feel the need to go on hunger strike?
Several years ago I had attended a talk by former detainee Moazzam Begg at Newcastle University and listened in horror and incredulity as he recounted his tale of capture, torture and imprisonment only to be released several years later from Gitmo without charge. Later I discovered that Moazzam was not an exception, 86 out of 166 detainees had been cleared for release (some years before) but were still languishing in captivity waiting to be set free.
Alongside hearing Moazzam’s experience I had also encountered Col. Morris Davis online and discovered that the former Chief Prosecutor at Guantanamo was now strenuously campaigning for its closure. (President Obama has yet to make good on his promise to close down Gitmo).
Col. Morris had thrown a spanner in the works by refusing to accept evidence from detainees obtained by undue coercion (read torture) except Bush has declared that the US does not officially torture people. Morris, under great pressure to comply wrote, “with two people now exercising command authority over me who seemed to lack any legal or moral objection to what most would call torture, it was time to quit”.
He went on to say:-
I have come to regard Guantanamo and the still-floundering military commissions as profound and shameful stains on America’s reputation as a country that stands for freedom and justice for all.
At last count, there were still 166 detainees at Guantanamo, a large number of them so despairing that they are willing to contemplate death as a preferable option to remaining in prison, with many of them having gone on hunger strike. The U.S. military is force-feeding 46 of those detainees to prevent them from starving themselves to death.
I had also come into contact with Johina Aamer, the young daughter of Shaker Aamer and was touched by her strength, maturity and impressive fight to bring Shaker home. Her words moved me, to think of all the years that she had been denied the presence and support of her father, and there was Johina’s mother without a husband. Shaker’s youngest son Faris has never even seen his father. … what must he think of this world. As journalist Yvonne Ridley wrote:-
Today Prince William got to see and hold his beloved son – and we wish them well. But I want us all to think about another father … Shaker Aamer who has never met his son Faris, or held him or whispered loving words in his ear from father to son. Faris is 11 years old and in all that time Shaker has been held without trial or charge in Guantanamo. Where’s the justice?
The children’s moving letters released by Reprieve were presented to a Senate hearing on Guantanamo and can be read on my blog https://activist1.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/guantantamo-children-of-shaker-aamer-appeal-for-the-return-of-their-father/
My hunger strike was not the first action taken on Guantanamo. I had previously written a letter to the office of Public Safety Minister, Vic Toews, Correctional Service Canada (CSC), to ask him to accept detainee Omar Khadr who was hoping to be transferred from Gitmo to Canada https://activist1.wordpress.com/2012/06/22/omar-khadr-and-canadas-history-of-human-rights-violations/
Alongside demonstrations to close Guantanamo. I had also written an article in May 2013 as a former nurse protesting at force-feeding of detainees and arguing for the right NOT to be force-fed https://activist1.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/guantanamo-the-right-not-to-be-force-fed/ This included highlighting the following from Anne Gallagher, director of the International Centre for Nursing Ethics, at the University of Surrey, in England, and editor of the journal Nursing Ethics:-
Health professionals regularly make decisions about the continuation and discontinuation of treatment and they have to accept patients’ decisions to refuse treatment even if this may result in their deaths. The right to refuse medical interventions to provide nutrition and hydration should also be extended to prisoners as autonomous individuals.
We must have the utmost respect for nurses and other professionals who work ethically in military and custodial care settings and appreciate the many challenges that arise. We must also express our solidarity with those who refuse to do something that conflicts with their professional values.
Nurses who refuse to participate in force-feeding are, in my view, acting in accord with their professional values. Force-feeding is not part of nurses’ caring repertoire.
For an insight into force feeding see the disturbing video where actor, rapper and social activist Yassin Bey (aka Mos Def) volunteers to undergo the process…. and imagine if that were you http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/jul/08/mos-def-force-fed-guantanamo-bay-video
Irish prisoner, Marion Price was left with permanent damage after being force-fed over 400 times while on hunger strike in a British prison, this is her description of that time in an interview with Dublin magazine The Village:-
Four male prison officers tie you into the chair so tightly with sheets you can’t struggle. You clench your teeth to try to keep your mouth closed but they push a metal spring device around your jaw to prise it open. They force a wooden clamp with a hole in the middle into your mouth. Then, they insert a big rubber tube down that. They hold your head back. You can’t speak or move. You’re frightened you’ll choke to death.
This image kept springing to mind, I could stop my hunger strike any time I wanted, for those at Guantanamo, using their bodies is their only real way of protesting for their human rights to be upheld.
Finally as someone whose husband and brother in law were unlawfully killed by the state and termed in court as US “collateral damage” I have my own bizarre connection to the US prison system. I firmly believe that if my concerns regarding other prisons particularly Arkansas State Penitentiary had been addressed rather than suppressed it would have been much more difficult to export unethical and dangerous practice to Guantanamo.
So how did my week on hunger strike go?
The first three days were the hardest until my body adjusted to zero calories. I started the day watching a video from Jason Leopold, morning prayers at Guantanamo’s Camp 5, where you view the guards pacing the corridor but never see the face of the haunting voice from one of the cells http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2g9X0E3HFc This made me feel quite emotional especially knowing that this is the time of Ramadan, so important to Muslims everywhere.
Initially I felt hunger pangs and had a headache, so increased my fluid intake. (I drank only water and tea minus milk and sugar for the week). On day two I broke a vase and put this down to low blood sugar as I rarely break anything, my body is used to enjoying sweet things.
I was buoyed up by the support from family and friends who sent encouraging messages and reposted articles on Guantanamo on my Facebook and Twitter pages. Julie Christie, the actor and social activist came to mind too as we were sharing the same week of food deprivation. I also thought of one person who had pledged 10 days initially but was reconsidering the length of time as he was already tweeting from bed.
Day 3 was probably the worse. I had been asked to give an interview for Russia TV on Guantanamo on one of the hottest days of the year. My head was pounding as I sat in a link up studio in Newcastle in intense heat propped up in an uncomfortable chair and trying hard not to faint.
Concentration was difficult, not helped by the fact that a light on the equipment had suddenly failed with minutes to go. I was made aware of the fact that I was unfortunately wearing a blue top (other colours weren’t apparently affected by this technical malfunction) which I was informed might make me “see through” and was asked “did I have a jacket to put on top”. Given the temperature I didn’t and contemplated borrowing the engineer’s T shirt.
I did what I could to highlight conditions at Gitmo (but oh how I wish they had got me on day 6 when I was somewhat euphoric without nourishment and finding a new lease of life). I hoped people would realize that the hunger strike was kicking in as opposed to my being intellectually challenged. My parents watched the news and described me as looking “pale and hollow” but at least not see through!
I was told things would improve on Day 4 and they did. I started to feel clean and alert, detoxified from all the gunge that had accumulated in my body. I lost feelings of hunger and on a trip to buy catfood at Tesco, focused on an image of Mos Def in the feeding chair to distract me from the shelves of chocolate goodies.
On days 5 and 6 I was on a natural high, out for walks, championing the wonders of water, glad to be alive and very grateful for my freedom. I noticed how focused my mind had become with all my concentration channelled into the men at Guantanamo and their families. I even managed to write a couple of articles.
Day 7 … when the time finally came to eat, I was extremely reluctant to give up my hunger strike and felt guilty at taking food. How could I be sat experiencing pleasure while others were suffering at Guantanamo…
I can only say that as my stomach emptied during the 7 days, my mind opened up to contemplating the difficulties of others. What campaigners want now is Shaker released back to the UK and to his family. Friends that had followed my week of fasting have now started contacting to ask how they can participate…the movement will grow and grow. So for all those wanting to stand fast for justice, you too can do your bit upholding human rights by clicking on the link provided http://www.standfastforjustice.org/ and pledging just a little of your time.
Clive Stafford-Smith remains concerned that his client is still not on the list for transfer from Guantanamo though two Algerian men are now leaving. He states, “the UK Government has repeatedly said that they want Shaker returned to the UK. David Cameron must strain every sinew to ensure that Shaker returns to his family in London as soon as possible.”
Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad. She is a Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”.