What’s Going On At Gitmo?

Amidst the post-Katrina coverage, the Roberts confirmation hearing, and the latest devastatingly deadly suicide attack in Iraq, a big story was lost in the fog today: apparently one-fourth of the 502 inmates at Guantanamo are on a hunger strike.

The authorities at the prison are now force-feeding 18 of the 128 striking prisoners, some through tubes in their noses. The protest this time is not like past ones, which demanded improved conditions at the camp or that guards refrain from dunking the Koran in the toilet. This time, according to the Los Angeles Times, the only national paper today not relying on the wires for this story, the prisoners “are demanding that they be immediately released or granted access to a legal process to defend themselves against blanket allegations that they are terrorists.”

In a Newsday article from this past Saturday, a representative of the strikers, Binyam Mohammed, an Ethiopian-born British resident, transmitted this statement through his defense lawyers: “People will definitely die.”

At what point does this become a big story? When one of these detainees dehydrates and passes away? Two? Six?

This past June, after widespread allegations of abuse (including the Koran in the toilet debacle), President Bush dared reporters to go down and check out the facilities at Gitmo themselves: “And for those of you who are here and have doubt, I suggest buying an airplane ticket and going down and look — take a look for yourself.”

CNN, among a few other news organizations, took him up on the offer, but returned feeling that because of “military ground rules,” it was “nearly impossible for a CNN crew that visited the prison the same day to get a full picture of the prison.” They spoke to no detainees, but heard at least one, yelling behind a wall that, “We take the torture in here.”

That was three months ago, and, as far as we know, the last time that reporters tried to get in and find out what was going on at the prison.

What makes this story more significant than even the mass suicide attempt two years ago by nearly two dozen detainees who tried to hang themselves in their cells, is that there seems to be a political motivation to this protest. The fact that the prisoners are demanding proper legal recourse rather than just an improvement in their condition, and are willing to put their lives at risk to get it, is a noteworthy change.

We’re also wondering why there’s been no follow-up on a Washington Post article last month which reported that the Afghan detainees at Guantanamo — about 110 prisoners — will be transferred to the government of Afghanistan. As Josh Marshall put it at the time, “Isn’t this a tacit admission that we don’t consider the vast majority of the folks at Gitmo much of a threat after all? Either that or this is an amazingly reckless thing to do.”

The media needs to keep chipping away at this story. The brief Koran flair-up in June, along with an inconclusive debate over whether the prison should be shut down, is now long forgotten.

But these detainees, whoever they might be – and we don’t really know who they are – are trying to get us to hear them.

Maybe we should listen.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.