When Will Obama Release A Man Who Has Spent Eight Years On A Hunger Strike?

Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP Photo.
Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, Wednesday Nov. 20, 2013.
Human-rights advocates and attorneys are pushing President Obama to release a man who has lost more than half his body weight during an eight-year hunger strike to protest his indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay prison. Tariq Ba Odah, who is from Yemen, was cleared for release in 2009, but has now spent more than a third of his life behind bars, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Ba Odah's weight has dropped from 160 pounds to a mere 75 pounds, according to his attorney. In June, three medical experts filed declarations stating that Ba Odah belongs in a hospital, not a prison. “A weight of 75 pounds for an adult male is a phenomenon rarely, if ever, encountered by the medical profession,” wrote Jess Ghannam, Ph.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, in a petition to President Obama. Ba Odah has used his hunger strike to "protest his continued indefinite detention and the solitary conditions of his confinement," the petition states.

This is the only thing they control in their lives nowadays — what they take into their bodies — and they don't really even control that.

Carlos Warner, attorney for Guántanamo Bay detainees
Ba Odah arrived at Guantánamo when he was just 23 years old, after being arrested in Pakistan. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, authorities have declined to tell Ba Odah the reason for his arrest. Guards force-feed Ba Odah daily to keep him alive, strapping him down to a gurney and then forcefully inserting a feeding tube through his nose. The World Medical Association has strongly condemned force-feeding a person on a hunger strike as torture, but the U.S. military continues to use the practice. In 2013, rapper and activist Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, filmed himself being "force-fed under standard Guantánamo Bay procedure" to highlight the brutality of the practice. But despite these force-feedings, Ba Odah continues to starve himself. Omar Farah, a CCR-appointed attorney, is pleading with President Obama to let the dying man go.
Carlos Warner, an assistant federal defender in Ohio who has represented many prisoners at Guantánamo, spoke to Refinery29 about Ba Odah's case and the much larger hunger strike that detainees enacted inside the prison in 2013. "They are people who really have zero options. This is the only thing they control in their lives nowadays — what they take into their bodies — and they don't really even control that," Warner says. "We've had men die at Guantánamo.... No life is worth [losing for] some international attention, but certainly if it happens, it's going to be a huge story. In the past, when people have died from these peaceful protests, change occurred." Ba Odah's continued detention hinges on the court's interpretation of habeas corpus, a part of both American and international law that protects individuals from unlawful detention. The fight for habeas corpus as it relates to Ba Odah's case has been part of public dialogue for several years. Back in 2013, to protest Ba Odah's detention, actresses Mia Farrow and Vanessa Redgrave met in New York to read some of his letters from prison aloud. "I live on just the imagination of my wonderful childhood, because I was prohibited from living my youth in freedom due to the injustice and monstrous torture which the American authorities exercised against me," Farrow read.
Ba Odah's has also addressed his hunger strike in letters to his attorney: “A captive does not possess any realistic means to send his messages to the world other than to strike.... Freedom should be much more precious for the human being than all the desires on earth. And we should never give it up regardless of how expensive the price may be,” Ba Odah wrote in April 2013. On July 17, 2013, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that nearly four years earlier, Ba Odah had in fact been cleared for release in a unanimous intergovernmental decision. Yet the U.S. District Court, on behalf of President Obama, continues to mandate that Ba Odah remain in prison. “Mr. Ba Odah’s physical condition is grave and continues to significantly complicate counsel’s representation of him,” a status report filed in 2013 stated. “However, recent Guantánamo-related developments suggest that maintaining the current indefinite stay in Mr. Ba Odah’s case is appropriate at this time." Explains Warner, "He's actually being detained at this point because he's hunger striking. It's like everything's been turned completely on its head. That's just the bizarre, Kafka-esque kind of logic you have in Guantánamo. It's very upsetting to me."

A captive does not possess any realistic means to send his messages to the world other than to strike.

Tariq Ba Odah, Guantánamo Bay detaineee
These developments included President Obama’s campaign promise to close Guantánamo completely and the possibility of Ba Odah’s transfer to another facility, which rendered his imprisonment temporary, according to the court. Today, 116 men remain at Guantánamo Bay detention center. The detainees are from 22 different countries. And 56 — including Ba Odah — have been cleared for release but continue to sit in prison. "The detention facilities at Guantanamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order," President Obama declared back in January 2009. The men covered under Obama's 2009 order included those who had been detained for more than six years. Their cases were supposed to be reviewed promptly so that they could be prepared for release or relocation. But so far, that has rarely happened. After 13 years, the only progress in Ba Odah's case has been in the deterioration of his body.

Tariq Ba Odah was cleared for release in 2009. But he remains in prison, and has spent more than a third of his life behind bars.

For now, the U.S. governement appears to be at a standstill in deciding what to do about Tariq Ba Odah. In addition to doctors, human-rights groups, and attorneys, the Editorial Board of The New York Times has also spoken out about the importance of releasing Ba Odah and closing Guantánamo once and for all. "If he were to die in custody, Mr. Ba Odah would become the first inmate at Guantánamo Bay to die from malnutrition. That would be a shameful outcome that Mr. Obama can easily prevent," the Times editorial board wrote.
Ba Odah's release from Guantánamo would not be the first of its kind. In 2013, Obama repatriated Ibrahim Idris, a Sudanese prisoner who suffered from severe psychological distress. But time is running out for Ba Odah, and human-rights groups are pushing the president to act now, while he is still in office. "I can confidently say that Mr. Ba Odah is suffering from severe malnutrition and that...such a state of starvation will, without medical intervention, lead inevitably to death, possibly in a period of months," wrote Sondra Crosby, M.D., an associate professor of medicine and public health at the Boston University School of Medicine. Warner believes the public must keep the pressure on. "Dying is not the way. I don't think that if one, five, or 10 of them die, that's going to move the needle to close Guantánamo," Warner says, adding that he feels confidently that Obama wants to shut down the prison and that inmates and their counsel need to work with the administration until he does. "We have to do what we can politically and otherwise to help with the solution," he adds. "And that means a lot of education about who's [imprisoned] there to the public." Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there are 122 remaining prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. There are 116 prisoners remaining.

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