Twenty-five American peace activists are ready to begin fasting Monday at the gates of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after completing a 50-mile trek in protest of prison conditions and reported torture of detainees. The group, members of the Catholic Worker movement, seeks U.S. authorization to enter the base and meet with prisoners—some 500 of which are held there on suspicion of terrorist activities.
If the activists are granted access to the base, Cuban authorities have agreed to provide them with a military escort through the miles-wide Cuban base, littered with mines, that surrounds the U.S. facility. If denied, group members plan to hold a vigil and fast until their scheduled return to American ground on Saturday.
“The fast is a way to amplify the demand to let us into the base, to amplify the demand of justice for the prisoners, and finally, of penance for the prisoners,” said Mike McGuire, the group’s spokesperson in Baltimore. He said those participating in the march, including a 79-year-old nun, a Jesuit Priest, and the daughter of late peace activist Phil Berrigan, have been fasting every Friday for several months in preparation.
Some 200 detainees at Guantánamo—which Amnesty International has called the “gulag of our times”—have conducted hunger strikes in recent months to protest their treatment and extended confinement without trial. Because Guantánamo detainees are classified as enemy combatants and not prisoners-of-war, they are exempt from rights provided under the Geneva Conventions. Only a handful have been charged.
According to military officials, 36 detainees are presently participating in hunger strikes, with 22 receiving internal nutrition through nasal tubes.
U.S. officials have vehemently denied allegations of torture. Yet the International Committee of the Red Cross has been the only organization granted full access to the prison—and only in return for keeping their findings secret.
“There’s a reason this naval base is on the island of Cuba: It’s one of the few places in the world where international law doesn’t exist—it’s a vacuum,” organizer Frida Berrigan, a researcher at the New School’s World Policy Institute, said from New York last week.
She and the group have set up a website at www.witnesstorture.org to document their journey from Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s southeast coast, to Guantánamo, which began last Tuesday. The start of their march coincided with the day United Nations inspectors had planned to visit the prison before Washington denied their request to interview detainees.
U.S. officials have not commented on what, if any, repercussions the protesters will face upon their return, but the penalty for Americans traveling illegally to Cuba ranges from a $7,500 fine for first-time offenders to $250,000 and 10 years in jail.
Jennifer Harberry, a lawyer, activist and author of Truth, Torture, and the American Way, called the Catholic Worker protest “enormously important” in drawing attention “to the fact that outright torture is being used right now in Guantánamo by U.S. interrogators.”
“It’s really important that the U.S. population understand that what’s going on in Guantánamo fits the legal definition of torture under our own felony statute,” she said, pointing to a statute of the U.S. code that defines torture as an act intended to inflict physical or mental pain upon another person within his control.
In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press following the 9-11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney said the government would need to work “the dark side” to combat terrorism.
In an entry posted on the group’s website from Cuba this week, Berrigan called that dark side “the torture, the disappearances, the secret prisons, the holding incommunicado, the abrogation of U.S. and international law.”
“We are walking to shine a light on that darkness,” she said.