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Last(ing) Days of Indignity..?

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Barack Obama will order the closure of Guantanamo's detention camp on his first day in office this week. But there is no conciliatory spirit among the jailers. They remain recalcitrant to the end, determined still to keep everyone in the dark -- and I'm not just talking about the detainees.

Last week, the Pentagon reported that 42 detainees are on a hunger strike. However, human rights lawyers estimate the total is closer to 70 men -- roughly 30% of those remaining in the Bush administration's netherworld prison.

Due to the Pentagon's long-standing practice of withholding or distorting as much Guantanamo-related information as possible, defense lawyers have been relying on the detainees themselves for their intelligence. But of course, this source, like all things at Guantanamo, is unpredictable, and there is no guarantee of timeliness, as Air Force lawyer, Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, is painfully aware.

Bradley received a fax last Thursday from her client Binyam Mohammed, who has been detained in the island prison for four years -- much of it in the isolation of Camp 5. In the fax, Mohamed informed his lawyers that he too was on a hunger strike.

When Bradley called me with this news, the normally unflappable colonel sounded more distressed than I've ever heard her before. The message from Mohamed was dated December 29 -- it had taken nearly three full weeks for her to receive it. She had no idea about his current condition.

"It's inexcusable," said Bradley. "There's no reason they should be keeping this information from me when the health and welfare of my client is in question."

But it gets worse. When Bradley called the Joint Task Force (JTF), the military unit responsible for running Guantanamo's detention operations, to ask about her client's well-being, she was given the brush off.

"They told me to call the prosecution," said Bradley. "But the prosecution has no authority over his situation, since the charges against him were dropped."

Indeed, charges against Mohamed were thrown out last fall when the lead prosecutor on his case, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, quit the military commissions, concluding they were a sham. He decried the entire process, and subsequently, the charges in five of his cases were dismissed.

Though Vandeveld isn't able to say much about the Mohamed case, because most of what he knows is classified, he says Mohamed doesn't pose a threat to the US, and he believes that Mohamed will soon be sent back to England. If so, it will complete a seven-year odyssey for Mohamed who was picked up in Pakistan; accused of colluding with erstwhile "dirty-bomber" Jose Padilla in an improbable plot; sent to Morocco and allegedly tortured by interrogators who took a razor blade to his genitals.

Being sent back to England was in fact the subject of Mohamed's unusual letter to his lawyers. In what was the first disclosure of this information, and news to his lawyers, Mohamed says he has reason to believe his release from Guantanamo has been ordered: "It has come to my attention through several reliable sources that my release from GTMO to the UK had been ordered several weeks ago. It is a cruel tactic of delay to suspend my travel till the last days of this (Bush) administration while I should have been at home a long time ago. I am on a hunger strike and expect to be force fed in protest to this."

The lawyers are taking the information about his release at face value and are, as ever, trying to expedite this release. But in the meantime, Bradley is concerned about his current well-being, and whether he is indeed being force fed.

"If Binyam is being forcefully tube fed against his will, I chalk this up as another abusive torture tactic that started a long time ago in Pakistan, then continued in Morocco, the Dark Prison in Bagram, and now continues in Guantanamo," says Air Force officer Bradley.

Tube feeding at Guantanamo goes like this: guards and medical personnel strap the detainee to a chair, they Velcro his head to a metal restraint, force a tube into his nostril, and then pump large volumes of liquid nutrients into his stomach. He is then restrained for a period of up to three hours so he does not purge his meal.

According to the ACLU, a UN report has confirmed that this type of force-feeding is in violation of the Convention Against Torture. It also removes the last act of volition a prisoner is usually able to exercise.

If Mohamed and other small, insignificant and perhaps innocent prisoners are to be sent home, the force-feeding will be their last farewell and a lasting reminder of the indignity they've endured.

As for getting any new information about her client -- when Bradley told the JTF that it would be fruitless for her to contact the prosecution, JTF officer Cathy Yang told her to go file a FOIA.

FOIAs, or Freedom of Information Act requests, are notoriously slow processes. Bradley says that a FOIA request could take eight-to-12 weeks to process -- and that's if it moves quickly.

"It's appalling because it's the same unethical practice that the JTF has been practicing for years," says Bradley, "Keeping counsel in the dark. I have a right to know whether Mr. Mohamed's health and well-being are in jeopardy."

For Bradley, the frustration has become almost too much to bear. She has asked her commanding officer to intervene on her behalf, and is awaiting word of a potential meeting between him and Mohamed.

In the meantime, she likely won't file a FOIA. She's still awaiting word about the last one she filed to get information on her client's health. That was in May 2008.

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