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Why Obama Cannot Ignore The Hunger Strikers Of Guantanamo Bay

Margaret Thatcher's legacy was forever tarnished by the ten IRA hunger strikers who died on her watch. Will Guantanamo's protesters be Obama's black mark?

A Humvee at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba
A Humvee at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba
Sylvie Kauffmann

LONDON - When debating Margaret Thatcher"s legacy, an important element was largely swept under the rug – the 1981 hunger strike by IRA inmates in a Northern Ireland prison.

This dark period of British history is all the more significant as 32 years later, another hunger strike – in Guantanamo Bay – risks backfiring on President Barack Obama, who has been incapable of keeping his promise to close down the post 9/11 military prison.

“Crime is crime is crime. It is not political!” declared the Iron Lady in her high-pitched voice, sounding slightly irritated. This sentence is emblematic of the hard-line approach of Prime Minister Thatcher, with the Irish Republican Movement that was igniting Northern Ireland.

Bobby Sands was the commanding officer of the IRA inmates being held at Maze prison – also known as Long Kesh – where he was serving a 14-year sentence for firearms possession. On March 1, 1981, Sands started refusing food with the aim of obtaining the status of political prisoner, or prisoner of war, for himself and his fellow Irish republican inmates. Five years earlier, the British government had withdrawn the political status for paramilitary prisoners as part of its policy of “criminalization.”

On April 9, from his cell, Sands was elected to the British Parliament, during a partial election in a Northern Ireland constituency. On May 5, he drew his last breath.

The news, announced at 2 a.m. with the banging of garbage can lids on Falls Road, in Belfast, triggered days and nights of rioting. 100,000 people attended Sands' funeral.

Other IRA inmates had already taken over the fight. The next hunger striker to die, Francis Hughes, passed away a week later. Maintaining her uncompromising stand, which was supported by the British public, Margaret Thatcher stood firm. From May to October, she let slowly die ten hunger strikers. It was the prisoners’ mothers who ended the hunger strike by demanding medical intervention to save their sons’ lives.

A major propaganda coup, the hunger strike allowed the IRA to recruit massively, reinforced Sinn Féin – the IRA’s political wing – and radicalized the conflict. Donations of American supporters poured in.

The deadly bombings continued, including the attack – which Thatcher narrowly escaped – on her hotel, during a Conservative party conference in Brighton. In 1998, it was Prime Minister Tony Blair who finally signed a peace deal with the rebel province.

The situation in Guantanamo is different, but the weapon that is hunger strike is leading to the same trap. The hunger strike started early February, and quickly spread among the 166 detainees of the camp, all of who were arrested in the fight against terror, after 9/11.

Photo: Paul Keller

According to Guantanamo authorities, on April 12, 43 prisoners met the official hunger strike criteria (refusing nine consecutive meals), with 13 being force-fed a highly nutritive liquid by tubes up their noses and into their stomachs. Lawyers are saying the hunger strike is wider-ranging, affecting 100 to 130 detainees in total.

"Stealth hunger strikers"

On April 13, at dawn, American troops raided Camp 6, where the least dangerous captives are being held – in order to break the hunger strike. The majority of inmates in this camp have not been charged and are allowed to take part in group activities such as sports and cultural, or religious activities. The prisoners covered surveillance cameras with cereal boxes, preventing the troops from seeing who was on strike and what state they were in.

The raid, which took place just a few hours after the departure of an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation, and while media visits are prohibited until May 6, allowed troops to regain control of Camp 6, and to place each detainee in a high security individual cell.

Guantanamo authorities, consisting in more than 1,700 American troops monitoring 166 prisoners from Arab and Muslim countries, suspect some of the hunger strikers of eating in secret. But their biggest concern, says Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, is the “stealth hunger strikers” who pretend to eat so the guards don’t notice they are dying.

The last thing Guantanamo wants is a Bobby Sands. The Camp 6 Martyrs would be a guaranteed hit in Middle Eastern box offices. It should be enough to remember the morbid details of Bobby Sands' agony, as described by his relatives: his thinness, the moment when he became deaf, then blind, the moment he stopped speaking... to see that such a scenario must be prevented at all costs.

Bobby Sands in 1973 - Photo: Bobby Sands Trust

This is why the hunger strikers whose lives are in danger, are force-fed -- a practice denounced by the ICRC. Has the problem been solved? Of course not. It was perfectly described during a March 20 Congress Armed Services Committee, by General John F. Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command: the Guantanamo detainees, 86 of whom were cleared for release three years ago, are starting to lose hope that they will ever be released. Seven have committed suicide since 2006. President Obama had promised to shut down the prison “within a year” – this was on Jan. 22, 2009.

Obama's good intentions have gotten lost in a maze of disputes with Congress, which blocked the credits needed for the transfer of detainees. Daniel Fried, the special envoy for facilitating the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp was reassigned and not replaced. The prison’s commander asked for $200 million to turn the installations – which were designed to be temporary 11 years ago – into a permanent infrastructure. Meanwhile, says General Kelly, the prisoners are “devastated” by what they interpret as signs there are no solutions to the legal limbo in which they are trapped.

Maggie Thatcher could have accepted the demands of the hunger strikers of Long Kesh, but she didn’t want to. Barack Obama would like to accept the demands of Guantanamo's hunger strikers but he can’t. Two leaders of two great democracies, who failed on the same issue.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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