Red Cross chief: End political blockage on Guantánamo

Peter Maurer, head of the Geneva based International Committee of the Red Cross, discusses the source of the hunger strike at Guantanamo at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on Thursday, April 11, 2013.
Peter Maurer, head of the Geneva based International Committee of the Red Cross, discusses the source of the hunger strike at Guantanamo at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on Thursday, April 11, 2013. THE MIAMI HERALD

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that the way to solve the hunger strike at Guantánamo is by solving the “untenable blockage” in U.S. domestic politics that has brought detainee releases nearly to a standstill.

“The issue of Guantánamo is politically blocked in this country,” Peter Maurer said a day after meeting with President Barack Obama, and raising the issue at the White House. “One important message I brought to all my U.S. interlocutors over the past few days was . . . that they should put their energy and political energy into finding a new compromise that will move the delicate issues forward.”

Congress answered Obama’s 2009 call for closure of the prison camps with cascading restrictions on transfers that make it nearly impossible for detainees to leave the prison — unless they’ve died or won release orders in court.

Meantime, an administration task force of intelligence, law enforcement and military representatives has cleared 86 of the 166 captives for release — either through return to their home countries or resettlement in third countries, with supervision.

Maurer, who is Swiss and based in Geneva, called the ongoing hunger strike at the prison “an expression of underlying problems” — the impasse in transfers.

As of Thursday, the military categorized 43 of the 166 captives at Guantánamo as hunger strikers and said 11 of them were getting nutritional supplements via tubes snaked up their nose into their stomachs.

Lawyers for the captives say the food strike is much more widespread, with only the elderly, infirm and former CIA captives in a secret, separate detention site called Camp 7 continuing to voluntarily take their meals.

In response to a question, Maurer agreed that it is ICRC policy to oppose the forced-feeding of prisoners but declined a reporter’s invitation to “condemn” the practice as carried out by the prison camps.

“If we see a hunger strike today, we interpret this as a symptom, as an indicator about the lack of perspective that those detainees have, the impression of an American government which does not follow up on promises, promises that have been made on transfers,” Maurer said.

Maurer said Red Cross policy on forced feeding mirrors international medical groups that say doctors should not interfere with prisoners who voluntarily engage in hunger strikes, aware of its potential consequences. U.S. military spokesmen say it’s been both Bush and Obama administration policy to not permit a captive to starve himself.

Instead, a U.S. military medical team decides at what point after a captive has refused nine meals in a row to have guards shackle the hunger striker into a restraint chair and conduct the tube feedings.

The Red Cross has had two teams visit Guantánamo prisoners during the hunger strike, which the prisoners say began Feb. 6 after an aggressive search of detainee property, including their Qurans, in what was once the showcase communal prison for cooperative captives. But Maurer flatly refused to describe conditions or offer an independent view on the breadth of the food strike among the captives.

 “Conditions are a regular and constant issue of our confidential conversations,” he said, adding that his organization could provide no constructive role in ending the standoff at the Navy base beyond urging U.S. political leaders to hold regular review panels and transfer those captives deemed ready for release.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney confirmed there had been a meeting a day earlier between Obama and Maurer.

It was not on the president’s public schedule.

Carney said the administration remained committed to closing the detention center. “It is a commitment shared by the former president, by military leaders and the Republicans, including Senator [John] McCain,” he said. McCain challenged Obama for the White House in 2008. “And we continue to be committed to closing that facility in our national security interest.”

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