As President Obama’s terms in office come to an end, eight years after he entered office he has yet to deliver on one of his most prominent campaign promises: to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. He is now poised to leave it to the next administration. Though the prison was opened under President George W. Bush, Guantánamo has in many ways become Obama’s prison, the title of a recent book of essays edited by Jonathan Hafetz, to which CCR’s Guantánamo lawyers contributed. Over the remaining weeks of Obama’s presidency, we will be posting excerpts from their contributions. Below is our third installment, an excerpt from CCR Senior Staff Attorney Omar Farah, “Nourishing Resistance: Tariq Ba Odah’s Eight-Year Hunger Strike at Guantánamo Bay.”
My Method, My Message, My Protest
My hunger strike has become my shield which … protect[s] me from the conspiracies and humiliation … The hunger strike has nourished me the sense of resistance and reminded me that the unjust cannot manipulate me as he pleases. He will not succeed in controlling me or controlling my destiny, for I am the one who controls it.
- Letter from Tariq Ba Odah, Oct. 4, 2013
Though Tariq does not despair, he is under no illusions about the Gordian knot ensnaring him at Guantánamo. No matter the occupant of the Oval Office, the partisan makeup of Congress, the base commander presiding, or the guards on duty, his detention is a cruel game the outcome of which is predetermined: the prisoners lose until someone more powerful spares them. In the interim, they pay a heavy price. As Tariq puts it: “Freedom should be much more precious for the human being than all the desires on earth.” Detention, therefore is brutal; indefinite detention, mercilessly so.
At Guantánamo, indefinite detention is compounded by the indignity inherent in a system that encourages prisoners’ participation, only to mock them. For Tariq, why else create elaborate administrative and judicial processes—Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), Administrative Review Boards (ARBs), Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), Guantánamo Review Task Force assessments, and habeas corpus hearings—that after 13 years still have so little to show for themselves? Tariq, like so many others at Guantánamo, sees it as little more than the elevation of process over justice. The purpose, Tariq says, is to pacify a prison population enduring unspeakable suffering. This is why he easily draws comparisons to the institution of slavery. “I was arrested on the second day of Eid Al-Fitr…,” he writes, “then sold into the United States’ 21st century slavery market. As far as I am concerned, all of this pressure, humiliation, limitless injustice have been solely aimed at breaking me and breaking my brothers so that they could manipulate us…and plant in us despair and mentally enslave us just like the have physically enslaved those before us.”
Redemption for Tariq is born of protest, one organized around the principle of nonparticipation. Tariq refused to submit to a CSRT—the sham tribunal established by the Bush administration to determine who, among the hundreds of men then at Guantánamo, were “enemy combatants.” Tariq was similarly unwilling (and, in any event, physically unfit) to litigate his habeas petition. And as I recounted, from 2008 until 2010, he would not even sit down with his own lawyer. It goes without saying, however, that Tariq’s refusal to eat is the most uncompromising form of resistance through non-participation. “I tell them again and again that I don’t want any food from them…, I just don’t want it. All I want is for them to leave us alone, lingering in these cells. They want me to eat, but first I have to be subjected to humiliation. …The provocation is never-ending.” Therefore, Tariq says his hunger strike will never end. “My method of delivering my message is through hunger strike. You can cut me to pieces, but I will not break it. I will stop on one of two conditions: I die, or I am freed and allowed to return to my family.”
In April 2016, Tariq Ba Odah was released from Guantánamo after over 14 years of indefinite detention without charge or trial. In large measure, his release was the result of the immense pressure his hunger strike brought on the Obama Administration. Tariq maintained his hunger strike until the very end, finally leaving Guantánamo on his own terms –peacefully, proudly, and unbowed by nearly a decade and half of wrongful imprisonment and isolation.
Get the book and read the entire chapter, Obama’s Guantánamo: Stories from an Enduring Prison.