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Relocated Guantanamo prisoners hunger strike for better conditions, 2010
On January 25, 2010, the United States government ordered three detainees, Adel Fattough Ali El-Gazzar, Poolad Tsiradzho, and Rafiq al-Hami to be relocated from Guantánamo Bay Prison in Cuba to a facility in Slovakia. At the same time, the U.S. government moved other Guantánamo detainees to other European countries, as part of an attempt to relocate all of the detainees and shut down the facility. The United States sent 32 prisoners to various European countries, but both the U.S. and the European Union failed to develop a clear policy regarding the physical conditions of their imprisonment and provisions for their reestablishment. However, many of the detainees in other European countries had some mobility, financial support, and decent accommodations.
The three men in Slovakia, like many former Guantánamo detainees, had no accusations or convictions against them, and all denied that they were terrorists. A military review board had cleared El-Gazzar for release in both 2006 and 2009; the latter of these clearances came from the Obama administration’s Guantánamo Task Force, which recommended the release of over half of the 181 Guantánamo prisoners. The government did not follow this recommendation. Before sending him to Guantánamo, U.S. authorities had held and tortured El-Gazzar in Afghanistan. On arrival in Guantánamo in 2001 or 2002, the authorities told him that he would be one of the first to leave, as they found him to be unconnected to terrorism, but they did not release him until 2010. U.S. authorities had also tortured al-Hami, starting in 2001, and although he confessed to attending a military training camp, he withdrew this confession later, saying it had been a result of the torture; it is not clear if the government had any other grounds for allegations. The last prisoner, Tsiradzho, had also been in U.S. custody from 2001. Obama’s task force cleared him for release in 2009.
In Guantánamo, the delegation from Slovakia had told the detainees that they would have some restrictions on their freedom, but did not mention detention. However, on arrival in Slovakia, the government placed the three detainees into a detention facility for asylum seekers, although the three prisoners did not yet have asylum seeker status, only foreigner status. The precise details of their situation were unclear; they believed that they were to remain in the camp for six months and then leave, but were not certain. There was also a possibility that the government would set them free after 18 months of customization to Slovakia, but would continue having surveillance on them indefinitely thereafter. Although it is unclear what the exact plan was for their release, the important point is that the prisoners themselves did not know what their status was, when they would be free, and what the conditions of their release would be. Furthermore, they were not clear as to their legal status in the country. This lack of clarity was one of the prisoners’ grievances and cause for later protest.
According to the prisoners, conditions in the camp were worse than they had been in Guantánamo, and the treatment at the facility was objectionable. The facility kept them in isolation, unable to visit with anyone except facility personnel and their lawyers, as opposed to the situation in Guantánamo, where they had been able to communicate more freely. They had to be in their rooms for 23 hours a day, and had only a bed and sink for their use there. In Guantánamo, they had been able to spend 20 hours a day outside. Furthermore, the Slovak authorities had made no attempt to connect the men with their families. The men also claimed not to have internet access, although Bernard Priecel, chief officer of the Interior Ministry Immigration Bureau claimed that they had internet and phone access, and were able to see other prisoners at the institution. Priecel also claimed that they were getting eight hours daily of personal care, including psychological help, and that they were receiving Slovak language lessons for their later integration into Slovak society.
Administrators in Slovakia had told the prisoners on their arrival that they would stay in the facility for six months, and then move to a house in a Muslim community. However, in May, the authorities told the detainees that instead they would be sending them to another detention facility for asylum seekers for another six months. This announcement angered the detainees who were already unhappy about their conditions, and motivated them to take action.
On June 24, the detainees started a hunger strike in protest of the poor conditions, poor treatment, failure of the facility to release them as scheduled, and confusion as to their legal status. The government refused to comment on the prisoners’ status and explained that the protest was due to post-traumatic stress disorder. At the start of the protest, the detainees, whose identities the government had kept secret for the previous five months, revealed their names and contacted Amnesty International Slovensko (AIS). They reported their poor conditions and treatment and announced their hunger strike through the organization.
AIS’ director Branislav Tichy often spoke to the press about the action and the prisoners’ status, communicating the strikers’ messages to a larger audience. Various rights organizations rebuked the government for not giving the prisoners any legal status after so many months in the country. Since the prisoners were in communication with AIS, the organization was able to communicate the prisoners’ messages to the press and wider community through releasing occasional statements. This appears to have been the prisoners’ primary means of communication with the outside world.
On June 30, the unofficial spokesman for the three prisoners, El-Gazzar, said that they were ready to continue the hunger strike until the government found a resolution to their problems. Furthermore, they refused visits from a doctor that the facility had asked to come check their blood pressure. At this point, El-Gazzar, though weaker, was still able to walk. On the tenth day, El-Gazzar said that he would not eat until a Slovak authority resolved his freedom and status concerns. The hunger strike continued into July, with the detainees refusing to back down from their demands. It is not clear how the detention center responded to the hunger strike, other than trying and failing to force medical care on the prisoners.
On July 20, the Slovak government granted the prisoners the right to permanent residency in Slovakia and guaranteed that the status of their residence permanent would soon become definite. The Interior Ministry proposed to move the three detainees to the integration center for a six-month integration program in central Slovakia. Such a program would most likely help the three men get a job, a home, and obtain necessary social services. Furthermore, the men’s families would be able to come to the integration center and join the detainees there. This concession marked the end to the campaign.