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Gitmo Hunger Strikers Vow To Leave Cuba 'Alive Or In A Box'

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Yemeni troops watch as protesters demand the release of cleared detainees. (AP) | AP

Turmoil engulfing American prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was sparked by a new base commander whose aggressive approach to the detainees has backfired, according to defense attorneys. The camp is now in the midst of a full-blown revolt, with most of the inmate population committeed to a hunger strike, yet the commander, Col. John V. Bogdan, has rejected the simple demand made by the prisoners, the lawyers said.

With 86 U.S. detainees cleared for release, but held indefinitely nonetheless, the camp had become peaceful over the past few years, with detainees being given a measure of dignity and, for the most cooperative, additional privileges. That changed when Bogdan took control in June 2012 and began confiscating personal items such as photographs, letters and yoga mats, cranking down cell temperatures, and reimposing the practice of searching detainee Qurans for contraband.

It is the search of the Qurans that has the prisoners angriest, and which led to the hunger strike. The detainees told the the base command that they would prefer to surrender their Qurans rather than subject the Muslim holy books to search, as they had done in 2006, over a similar dispute. Bogdan, however, in a move that Joseph Heller would appreciate, is refusing to allow them to surrender the Qurans. A spokesman for the the military, Robert Durand, did not reply to a request for comment, but he told that the detainees "have presented no demands that we can meet” and said detainees were only engaged in hunger strikes to get publicity.

Two attorneys for the prisoners, Carlos Warner and David Remes, told HuffPost that their clients have attempted to surrender their Qurans, but have been refused. The military reasons that the detainees will later claim that they have been denied Qurans if they are allowed to surrender them, the lawyers said.

"He set off the biggest hunger strike in the history of Guantanamo," said Warner of Bogdan. "The entire camp is striking as of today," he added, A handful of elderly and other detainees were not involved, but more than 130 of the 166 detainees are refusing to eat, Warner said.

Solidarity among the prisoners is at an all-time high, Remes and Warner said, a development that has hardened their resolve and may make the hunger strike more difficult to resolve, even if the military eventually gives in to the simple demand to let them give up their Qurans.

Bogdan, however, isn't budging. One of Remes' clients told him that Bogdan has expressed a straightforward philosophy when it comes to prisoners:I’ve got kids at home and I know how to deal with kids. The detainee expressed concern for Bogdan’s children and suggested social services check on how they are being treated.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. began offering rewards of thousands of dollars for captured terrorists. Predictably, profiteers sold dozens of innocent people to the U.S. They have since been cleared for release, but for a variety of reasons remain imprisoned indefinitely. "These are men that have nothing to lose. They are ready to die because they don't think they're getting out of here," said Warner.

"In fairness to Bogdan, you can't be sure whether this is Bogdan acting on his own initiative or carrying out some sort of instruction from higher up. That being said, why would anybody higher up instruct him to treat the detainees that way?" wondered Remes. "It's ironic, though not surprising, that he comes in to break the men, as it were, and the result is mayhem, the result is chaos."

Defense attorneys for the few Guantanamo detainees actually facing charges have had their own issues with Bogdan. Bogdan recently testified that he didn’t know until February that the devices that appeared to be smoke alarms inside the rooms where attorneys met with clients were actually secret recording devices installed by intelligence agencies.

One attorney working on the release of some detainees provided HuffPost with a narrative he'd written on Bogdan and the hunger strike, but asked to remain anonymous so that his clients would not face retaliation. A second confirmed the contents as accurate.

At first, the detainees simply demanded that the authorities stop searching their Qurans. As the strike has dragged on, however, many of the men, entering their twelfth year of detention without charge and no end it sight, are also demanding an end to their illegal, AKA "law of war" detention.

The military is currently applying brutal tactics to break the hunger strike, e.g., withholding water, reducing temperatures to freezing levels, and moving the detainees from communal living to isolation cells. A detainee’s motion to end these practices is pending. Judge Thomas F. Hogan has scheduled an evidentiary hearing for April 15.

Below is a narrative I have cobbled together describing the events leading up to the hunger strike. The detainees are desperate, the camps were a tinderbox, and a new tough-guy commander of detention operations lit the fuse. If this commander is acting on orders from higher ups, consider the narrative an indictment of them.

The Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF) is one of three task forces with specific missions in the region which report to U.S. Southern Command. JTF’s mission, obviously, is to carry out the mission of GTMO—detention and interrogation of Muslim men apprehended worldwide in war on terror operations. The Joint Detention Group (JDG), a component of JTF, effectively runs the camps. Each camp has an Officer in Charge (OIC), who I gather reports directly to the JDG head and oversees the guard force.

When President Obama took office in 2009, he sent Admiral Walsh to GTMO to determine whether the prison met the standards of common article 3. Predictably, Walsh reported that, yes, the camp complied with common article 3, but they could do even better! Thereafter, conditions in the camps markedly improved, the only creditable aspect of President Obama’s GTMO policy. JDG ruled with a light touch and the maintained peace -- an Era of Good Feelings -- until the summer of 2012.

In June 2012, JTF command passed to Rear Admiral John W. Smith. JDG command passed to Colonel John V. Bogdan, one-time commander of an MP brigade that operated in East Baghdad. Unlike his Obama-era predecessors, Bogdan brought a tough-guy approach to detention operations and has ruled the camps with an iron fist. Marked by displays of power for power’s sake, his approach has led to mayhem in the camps. It’s certainly possible that Bogdan is just implementing directives from above, though that seems improbable given General Kelley’s recent testimony before HASC.

In September, Bogdan, without provocation, had his men storm Camp 6. During the fall, conditions in the camps deteriorated: for example, temperatures in the cells were lowered to 62˚. In January, a tower guard in the rec area fired into a group of detainees, wounding one, and in early February, the mass hunger strike broke out.

Bogdan lit the fuse when he or one of his OICs had the guards conduct a sweeping search of the men’s cells in camp 6, where about 130 of the 166 detainees were held. Guards arbitrarily confiscated personal items including family letters and photographs, legal papers, and extra blankets. (Civilians confiscated the papers.) Bogdan or his OICs also attempted to search the men’s Qurans, using interpreters to do the dirty work.

That fateful decision ignited the hunger strike. What upset the men was not how the Qurans were to be searched but the fact that they were to be searched at all. JDG had stopped searching Qurans in 2006.

According to our clients, JDG has admitted that it had no concrete reason to reinstitute Quran searches. Bogdan, however, decided to revert to the rules of 2006. The rules provided for Quran searches, a
most provocative display of power.

The men have offered to surrender their Qurans to the military permanently to avoid searches. Surrendering Qurans was a common solution to threatened searches in Bush days, when men feared their Qurans would be searched when they met with their lawyers. (Putting the men to that choice was one of the clever disincentives for such meetings.) Bogdan, however, will not agree to stop searches or take the Qurans.

Bogdan won’t even discuss the men’s grievances until they end their hunger strike. He’ll be damned if he blinks first. Meanwhile, he is using brutal tactics to break the strike. As the strike enters its eighth week, many men now view the strike as a means of protesting the very fact that they continue to be held. These men, including many of my clients, say they are determined to leave Guantanamo one way or the other -- alive or in a box.

Related on HuffPost:

Inside Guantanamo Bay
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