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Editorial: Hungry For Justice; Guantanamo Remains an Outrage

Military officials apparently are very frustrated with the growing number of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison who are participating in a hunger strike — more than 40 of the 166 prisoners at last count. Their most recent grievance concerns searches of their Qurans for contraband, a procedure that prisoners regard as a desecration of their holy books. When the prisoners said they would prefer to surrender their Qurans rather than continue to have them defiled, military officials refused. Guantanamo officials insist that the searches are conducted sensitively — Muslim interpreters handle the books while military inspectors watch — and accepting the prisoners’ offer would constitute an admission of wrongdoing.

“The hunger strikers have created an unfortunate situation with no clear path to resolution,” complained Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the military spokesman at the base.

Yes, let’s talk about unfortunate situations that lack clear paths to resolution.

The underlying cause of the hunger strike at Guantanamo, most agree, is the fact that the hope that arrived with the election of Barack Obama, who pledged during his 2008 campaign to close Guantanamo, has evaporated. The point was driven home this January when the president didn’t even mention the issue during his second inaugural speech or during this year’s State of the Union address.

Those inclined to shrug off the prisoners’ anger about the uncertainty of their fate as the unfortunate consequence of the war on terrorism are excusing a gross injustice. The continued detention of most Guantanamo prisoners has nothing to do with the war on terror. Of the 166 prisoners, only three have been tried and convicted. Most of the detainees are low-level suspects who were picked up in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when U.S. forces had little information to act on beyond the say-so of Afghan civilians who often took advantage of an opportunity to settle personal scores. Fewer than 20 of the detainees are terrorism suspects who were shipped to Guantanamo with the intention of actually trying them.

A much greater number — more than half of the camp’s detainees — have been cleared for release by a special task force of intelligence and law enforcement personnel. That was three years ago. Almost all of the prisoners have been held without hope of trial for more than a decade now.

So why are people who have been cleared for release continuing to be detained — at an annual cost, by the way, of more than $1 million per prisoner? Because enough members of Congress sense political advantage in the prisoners’ continued detention, even if that requires the continued violation of the detainees’ human rights. For several years now, Congress has prohibited the use of federal money to transfer Guantanamo prisoners, even those who have been cleared for release. That prohibition serves the fictional narrative created by the Republican Party that Obama’s plans to close Guantanamo pose a national security threat.

In fact, just the opposite is the case. Continuing to operate Guantanamo and demonstrating our utter indifference to basic human rights is providing terrorists one of their more effective recruiting tools. But even if the U.S. could continue to operate the prison camp without undermining its global war on terror, we would hope that our elected representatives would be sufficiently shamed by the indefinite imprisonment of people without trial — particularly those judged to pose no threat to us — that they would feel compelled to alter course.

But they’re not. So the prisoners are refusing to eat. And military spokesmen are complaining about what a difficult situation those desperate prisoners are creating for their captors.