Legal Transparent Detention: 3 Steps Forward, 15 Steps Backward

Pigeons fly over a flag of East Turkestan as Turks pray during funeral prayers for Uighur victims who were killed in China?s
Pigeons fly over a flag of East Turkestan as Turks pray during funeral prayers for Uighur victims who were killed in China?s Xinjiang region, in Turkish capital Ankara on July 10, 2009. Thousands of Turk protested against China and chanted slogans in support of East Turkestan following Friday prayers in Ankara and Istanbul. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

"Oh, they're taking him to prison for the color of his hair." -- Alfred Housman, Oh who is that young sinner

It's three steps forward and 15 steps backwards at Guantánamo.

At the end of December, it was reported that the last of three Uighurs being held at Guantánamo had been sent to Slovakia. They had been wrongfully detained at Guantánamo for 12 years. In 2001 they (and the other 22 Uighurs who have been released) were captured by Pakistanis and turned over to the United States in exchange for bounty payments.

As early as 2004 they had been cleared for release, but there was no place to release them to. On October 7, 2008 a federal district court ordered them released into the United States. On February 18, 2009 a federal appeals court said that the courts lacked the authority to order the men released into the United States saying only the President had the authority to order them released into the United States. The president did not order them released, in part because the folks in Congress did not want them coming into the United States. They didn't want them coming into the United States even though it was the United States that paid good money to get them out of Pakistan and even though it meant keeping them imprisoned for having done nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The United States is terribly sensitive to human rights when it pertains to how people are treated in foreign countries, as distinguished from how they are treated at Guantánamo. It did not want to send the Uighurs to China where they were from since it was feared they would be tortured upon their return. Of course, the United States did not completely ignore the Uighurs. It tried to get other countries to accept the Uighurs, but other countries wondered why they should do what the country that was wrongfully detaining them was unwilling to do and for many years no country could be found that would accept them. Since they were not United States citizens and not physically present in the United States, they had no rights. Given that history it was good news to learn on New Year's Eve that the remaining three Uighurs had been transferred to Slovakia after having been wrongfully held for 13 years. Those were the three steps forward. Here are the 15 steps backwards.

As sorry as everyone is that there are people in Guantánamo who should not be there, it is understandable that those running the place get really tired of the bad press they receive when people's attention focuses on the fact that people who are detained there who shouldn't be detained are protesting their detention. That is why in early December it was announced that Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command had ordered prison officials to quit reporting the number of prisoners who were on hunger strikes. In the summer of 2013, 106 of the 166 prisoners at Guantánamo were what were called "hunger strikers." By November 15 there were only 11 hunger strikers, but as of December 2 the number had gone up to 15. Of the 15, some were reportedly so thin that they were given the torture treatment that is considered humane because it forces those seeking death by starvation to receive nourishment through the nose using nasogastric tubes to keep them from accomplishing their goals of dying. Many of the hunger strikers were detainees who had not been charged with any crimes and had been cleared for release.

Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat is the chief of the Guantánamo public relations team that comprises 20 people. (It requires a 20-person public relations team since the entire Guantánamo operation has a cast of 2,127 troops and contractors whose job it is to manage the remaining detainees. According to a 2013 Democratic budget analysis, it costs $2.7 million per prisoner per year to keep the detainees in Guantánamo).

Explaining the reason for the embargo on reporting the number of hunger strikers, Cmdr. Filostrat said disclosing their number is a disruption of prison-camp operations and is part of a new PR strategy (presumably devised by the 20 person PR team.) Since a number of those in Guantánamo are there only because the U.S. can't figure out what to do with them, letting the public know how many are refusing to eat focuses attention on the fact they don't belong where they are and on our inability to solve the problem we created. A spokesman said although peaceful protests are permitted at the camp, the operators of the prison "will not further their protests by reporting the numbers to the public. The release of this information serves no operational purpose and detracts from the more important issues, which are the welfare of detainees and the safety and security of our troops."

It is not obvious how not letting the outside world know about the ongoing protests guarantees the welfare of detainees being force-fed. It is not obvious that if the civilian population knew how many prisoners were on hunger strikes they might become outraged and try to take it out on the "safety and security of the troops." It is obvious that those in charge of Guantánamo are embarrassed over the internment and treatment of detainees. They should be.


Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at For political commentary see his web page at