The Sunday Conversation
4:24 am
Sun May 5, 2013

Former Detainee Talks Of Desperation In Guantanamo Bay

Originally published on Sun May 5, 2013 11:57 am

Omar Deghayes is one of hundreds of former detainees who have been released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay over the past several years.

Arrested in Pakistan in 2002, Deghayes, a Libyan citizen, was held as an enemy combatant until his release in December 2007. No charges were ever filed against him.

There are 166 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, about 100 of whom are said to be participating in a hunger strike. Some are now even being force-fed to keep them alive.

In his years as a detainee, Deghayes went on three hunger strikes. He tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin that the strikes were often prompted by something drastic that happened in the prison.

"If you're so angry and depressed, you just can't feel you want to eat food," he says. "That's how it starts."


Interview Highlights

On what's going on psychologically during a hunger strike

"Thinking about why we've been there for many, many years inside those prisons without any chance to look at the evidence [against us.] There is no hope. All that comes together. And then it's a cry of help to the outside world [as] a last resort.

"It doesn't help that the guards themselves and the military administration in Guantanamo take an aggressive reaction to that. My experience is that they start to forcibly feed people; sometimes they go and invade people's cells and beat them up. ... Maybe they think by doing so is like to break you down and make you stop the hunger strike, but what it really ... does [is] just aggravates people and makes people more angry."

On what he hoped to accomplish with a hunger strike

"One of the last interrogators I had was a lot kinder than the previous ones, and I used to have some reasonable discussions with him. Because what happened is that sometimes the demands start from — we want our imprisonment to come to an end; we want proper courts [to hear our cases] so that a final decision is made and those who've committed anything can be convicted and imprisoned and those that haven't committed anything should be released.

"And [the interrogator] would discuss that. ... He would say, 'These things are not in my hands. These are political decisions. But I have in my hand to do lots of things. I can change at least the conditions, I can provide clean water for people to drink.' And we gave him the chance, and things really improved a lot for a length of time."

On why he thinks he was released

"There is no clear answer to that. The problem with Guantanamo, it's very, very illogical. Everything about it is illogical. There are some people who have been released and they've admitted that they have committed wrong things. Then at the same time, you have people that are completely innocent and been cleared for release and they aren't released.

"In my case, there was a lot of campaigning in the U.K. explaining that they had the wrong person inside prison. Because in my case it was a case of mistaken identity. They had a photograph of a Chechen rebel, and they thought that was me. That was secret evidence for five years. We had people who campaigned endlessly."

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Transcript

OMAR DEGHAYES: My name is Omar Deghayes. I'm a lawyer. I graduated from law school here in the U.K., and I was locked up in Guantanamo for about five years, several months - from 2002 to 2007.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Omar Deghayes is one of hundreds of former detainees who've been released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay over the past several years. There are 166 prisoners still there. Of that group, at least 100 are said to be participating in a hunger strike, with almost two dozen being force fed. President Obama recently he has a responsibility not to let the strikers die. And he said he is still intent on closing the facility altogether.

In his years as a detainee, Omar Deghayes went on three hunger strikes. His story is his own, and NPR cannot independently confirm the details of his account. Former Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes is this week's Sunday Conversation. I asked him what triggered his hunger strikes.

DEGHAYES: Usually, it's something drastic that took place in the camps, that angered everybody collectively; and they start on, and it catches up. Not from the beginning, everybody at the same time. - but it just slowly, slowly catches up throughout the camps. And then the news just go - reaches different places that people are hunger-striking.

MARTIN: How are they organized logistically? How much communication did you have with other inmates - because you were in solitary confinement, right?

DEGHAYES: I was, yes. But - like, I'll give you just an example because most of it, I wouldn't want to speak about it because I don't want it to be prevented inside prison there. You innovate ways to communicate by banging on the walls. You - next door, we found out that the air conditioning - if you speak very loudly inside, the person on top of your cell can hear you. And then that person can send that message through something else; through speaking inside, for example, the basin where you wash your hands, and things like that. And there are different ways. I don't want to speak about all of them, but these are just examples of how people can communicate.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about what's happening psychologically or emotionally in that moment, that you would start to purposely starve yourself?

DEGHAYES: Usually, it's a small incident - not small, but something grave takes place inside the camp. But that triggers other feelings; thinking about why we've been there for many, many years inside those prisons, without any chance to look at the evidence; or there is no hope. All that comes together. And then it's a cry of help to the outside world, usually; is that it's the last resort. And then it doesn't help by the guards - themself - and the military administration in Guantanamo, usually take an aggressive reaction to that.

My experience is, is that they start to forcibly feed people. Sometimes, they go and invade people's cells and beat them up; and take them outside and put water, liquid, inside them to maintain them alive. And maybe they think by doing so is like to break you down and make you, you know, stop the hunger strike. But what it really, it does - just aggravates people, and makes people more angry.

MARTIN: What was your objective? What did you want to happen in order to put an end to your own hunger strike?

DEGHAYES: At one stage, I have discussed it with one of the interrogators. One of the last interrogators I had was a lot kinder than the previous ones, and I used to have some reasonable discussions with him. Because what happened is that sometimes, the demands start from, we want our imprisonment to come to an end; we want proper courts to have our cases listened to in courts so that a final decision is made. And those who've committed anything can be convicted and imprisoned, and those who haven't committed anything should be released.

And he would discuss that. He was one of the best people who dealt with those hunger strikes, in the beginning. And he would say, these things are not in my hands; these are political decisions. But I have, in my hand, to do lots of things. I can change, at least, the conditions. I can provide clean water for people to drink. And we gave him the chance; and the things really improved a lot, for a length of time.

MARTIN: There are around 90 prisoners currently, who have been cleared to leave Guantanamo Bay. But they are still there - have been, for months on end. You are not there anymore. It's been long time since you were. And you don't know the motivations of those people striking right now. But based on your own experience, do you think the current hunger strike could end if one of those detainees was released, so that the others could see that there is some finality to this?

DEGHAYES: Yes, definitely so because when I hear the reports and why the hunger strike started and everything, I can just picture everything; that it's just very, very similar. It's very, very similar to what went on when I was there. It will send a very good message of hope; that it might lead to the ceasing of the hunger strike, yes.

MARTIN: Why do you think you were finally released?

DEGHAYES: There is no clear answer to that. The problem with Guantanamo, it's very, very illogical. Everything about it is illogical. There are some people who've been released, and they have admitted that they've committed wrong things. And then at the same time, you have people who are completely innocent and cleared for release, and they are not released.

But in my case, there were - lots of campaigning in the U.K., explaining that they have the wrong person inside prison because in my case, it was a mistaken identity. They had a photograph of a Chechen rebel, and they thought that was me. And that was secret evidence for five years. We had people who campaigned endlessly. My family were told by the lawyer that if you don't campaign openly, you'll never get your son released.

MARTIN: Omar Deghayes is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee. He joined us from the BBC studios in Brighton, England. Mr. Deghayes, thanks for talking with us.

DEGHAYES: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.