In Guantanamo, Obama's Promise of Hope Has Transformed Into Hopelessness

A view of Hospital Cay, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba during the arraignment of the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh
A view of Hospital Cay, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba during the arraignment of the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four co-defendants, Saturday, May 5, 2012, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (AP Photo/The Miami Herald, Walter Michot, Pool)

Over the past several weeks, the media has covered hunger strikes in Guantanamo. The coverage suggests that the military has interfered with the detainees' Korans, causing the detainees to respond with hunger strikes. As of March 26, it is unclear how many men are refusing to eat. The officials claim 31 out of 166 detainees, while the detainees' lawyers argue that a much larger group of men, perhaps even a majority, are participating in the hunger strikes. Because there is disagreement as to how many meals constitute a hunger strike, it is very difficult to determine an actual figure.

The military also acknowledges that 11 men are currently being force-fed. Twice a day, nutritional shakes are poured into tubes inserted through the men's nostrils and into their stomachs, while the men are strapped securely in restraint chairs. Three other men who are fasting have been hospitalized and are fed intravenously.

However, in reading between the lines, it seems that the hunger strikers are not only protesting the alleged mistreatment of the Koran and other conditions at the base. Many of these detainees likely see death as their only way out of Guantanamo.

Of the 166 men in Guantanamo, over half (86) were recommended for release. Nevertheless, they remain imprisoned, trapped indefinitely because of our leaders' shameful policies. President Obama does not want to repatriate a majority of the men back to Yemen, on the grounds that Yemen is an unstable state. In addition, since 2009, Congress has adopted and, Obama has voluntarily signed, restrictive legislation that limits the powers of the Executive to release the men.

Under the legislation, the Secretary of Defense must certify that the men transferred out of Guantanamo will not take up arms against the U.S. No high-ranking official wants to take this risk and be held accountable for a mistake. Yet, these men were never charged with a crime, and the U.S. has recommended them for release.

Consequently, what we are really seeing in the hunger strikers in Guantanamo today are men who believe that there is no way out. Many believe that their only exit will be in a coffin. They watched how former detainee Adnan Latif had been told for years that he was eligible for repatriation and would be going home soon. Then, last fall, when he heard that he was not to be released, he presumably committed suicide in desperation. After more than a decade at Guantanamo, he had lost hope.

President Obama campaigned on a platform of hope. He gave us all hope. And he gave hope to the detainees when he announced on his second day in office that he would close Guantanamo. The detainees cheered when he was elected in 2008, and they cheered him again when he announced the closing in early 2009. Yet, today, over four years later, not only does the prison remain, but the base is on track to receive a $200 million new prison makeover.

Ambassador Daniel Fried, the State Department official selected by Obama to find homes for the men in Guantanamo, has been transferred to another position. No one has replaced him.

The prison in the naval base in Guantanamo is not going to close. The men in Guantanamo know this and now see their lives in shadows. Despite being cleared for release, they see their lives as over. They will never hug, or even touch, their families, their wives and their children again. They will never return to their homes and experience freedom. For them, Obama's promise of hope has turned into hopelessness.

Peter Jan Honigsberg is professor of law at the University of San Francisco and Director of the Witness to Guantanamo project ( He is also the author of Our Nation Unhinged, the Human Consequences of the War on Terror (University of California Press).