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updated 4/27/2013 1:18:51 PM ET 2013-04-27T17:18:51

What can the hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay teach us about empathy for those accused of terrorism?

As of Saturday, 100 of the 166 men being held at Guantanamo Bay prison are on hunger strike, with 20 being force-fed and five hospitalized, according to U.S. military officials.

This number has swollen since soldiers raided the camp where the men were being held and placed them into isolation cells on April 13. Detainees have told their lawyers that every prisoner is participating in the nearly three-month-old protest, and, as one put it in a New York Times op-ed, they “will not eat until they restore my dignity” and begin releasing people.

Another detainee, a client of Up w/ Steve Kornacki guest Ramzi Kassem, echoed that sentiment in a phone call to Kassem on Friday, when he said, “I will remain on hunger strike until I leave this place. I have not lost hope. My protest is not driven by despair, but I will maintain my protest until I regain my dignity and freedom.” Some political leaders seem finally willing to revisit the issue of transferring the men who have been held—most of them without charge or trial—for as many as 11 years.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent a letter this week urging the administration to “renew its efforts” to transfer the 86 men cleared for transfer out of the prison by a multi-agency task force, but the events in Boston have led multiple Republican politicians to call for a return to the Bush-era policies of enemy combatant designations and indefinite detention. The Justice Department has been informing lawyers that their clients are being force-fed, which means it is now easier to view these men in human terms rather than as shadowy, unnamed characters from an earlier era in the global war on terror.

Why is there still so little public will to close the Guantanamo Bay? Why has Congress blocked even the President’s most perfunctory attempts to untangle the legal quagmire the prison represents? On Saturday’s Up with Steve Kornacki, Kassem, John Knefel, co-host of Radio Dispatch, Michelle Ringuette, Chief of Campaigns and Programs at Amnesty International and Former Rep Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., talked about the challenge presented by Guantanamo and how to remove the “stain” that indefinite detention has left on America’s reputation.

Video: Guantanamo detainees starving themselves to death

  1. Closed captioning of: Guantanamo detainees starving themselves to death

    >>> very soon they could start dying of starvation, one by one, dozens in all unless something changes at guantanamo bay . the detainees there are in the 80th dave their hunger strike , 97, more than half of those imprisoned taking part in the protest. five of those participating have been hospitalized. 19 are being forced fed. if that sounds benign to you consider one former detainee describing on this program what that's like.

    >> translator: when the nurse they try to come for five to ten minutes on this side of the nose and then they hit the bone and you tell me was this torture or not?

    >> more than a decade after the bush administration began using the military base for indefinite detention of individuals they dubbed enemy combatants the peaceful protest of the hunger strike is trying to remind the world 160 detainees are being held at guantanamo . there's an op-ed in "new york times" one explained his refusal to eat in stark terms. he says i've been on a hunger strike since february 10th and have lost well 30 pounds. i'll not eat until they restore my dig any ti. i've been detained at guantanamo for 11 years and three months. i've not received a trial. on thursday senator dine feinstein called on the obama administration to consider repatriating the 56 yemenese who have been approved for transfer. president obama halted the transfer. obama 's hold on transferring these detainees is one of the steps the president has taken in recent years that make transferring detainees out of the prison more difficult. he tried to close the facility at the beginning of his presidency but rebuffed by congress. a long history and uncertain future of guantanamo was unscored in testimony last month to congress by general john kelly who oversees guantanamo .

    >> i'm assuming guantanamo will be closed some day. but if we look into the past 11 years it was supposed to be temporary. who knows where it's going.

    >> to help that question i want to bring in the chief of campaign amnesty and co-host of radio dispatch and contributor of nation magazine and rolling stone.com. to set this up we have a pie chart that looks at who those 166 detainees are, how they are classified by the government. i know amnesty doesn't recognize this classification. according to the government you've got 86 who are approved for transfer and they are stuck there right now. 46 who are in indefinite detention basically it's been deemed that they need to be held but can't be tried in a military tribunal , can't be tried in courts. that's the determination of the government. others you see there subject to active investigations and three are convicted. so we're sort of in this stalemate and, you know, i think the question that comes to my mind is and we talked about this a little bit in the last segment we were talking about empathy the idea of having empathy for people who commit acts of terrorism or suspected of it, you know it seems to me if you're going to have any movement on this there needs to be empathy on the part of the public for people detained there. the public's ining stingt when they hear about guantanamo these are terrorist, these are dangerous people , i don't want them getting out. i wonder how you get around that politically?

    >> i think one thing you really have to do is imagine you're just walking down the street and then suddenly you're grabbed by a foreign government or in many cases by perhaps a bounty hunter. then you end up far from home with no access to lawyers, with no ability to try your case in a fairway. and what you're looking at is what we've done with guantanamo it's been 11 years. many of these men haven't been charged or received fair trials. we're in a place where we own it. i know that i don't want to have to explain to my 6-year-old son why he sees images of men in orange jump suits and black head bags because amnesty often goes out and we try to make sure we show people the images and visuals of what it looks like to have these prisoners. but it's a real stark reminder as you try to explain what we're doing. these are conditions that people associate with north korea , or china and people have to recognize this is something the u.s. government is doing. and we have to resolve it now.

    >> so what is the solution? because you have -- to be clear on the terminology. we talk about detainees being approved for transfer. we're not always talking about them being released, we're talking about going into custody into another country or is going to another country where they are monitored by the government, their activities are being monitored where there's some degree of suspicion or some degree of, you know, we think these people are a risk going forward. some, you know, the government is detaining is basically saying we're convinced these people had leadership roles in al qaeda and taliban. we don't have evidence that we can present at trial to prove this but we're convinced of it. what is the solution to this? is it putting everybody on trial in the criminal court in the united states . is that what we should be doing here?

    >> we have to go back to first principles. innocent until proven guilty not guilty until proven innocent . if the u.s. government has been holding on to someone for 11 years and still can't make a case then that person should be released. when you look at guantanamo and the fact that in 2003800 prisoners there and now we're down to 166 that tells the rhetoric put out there by the bush administration that these men are the worst of the worst was false and the obama administration has done a very poor job of undoing that rhetorical harm, undoing this myth of the threatening guantanamo prisoner and the obama administration has not had the political back bone to deliver on the promise that president obama made when he was still a candidate to shut down that prison. it's not the national defense authorization act . program simply has not made that priority. he can close that prison if he wanted to.

    >> he can but you mention the political back bone to do it and the reason i would say he doesn't have the political back bone is even members of his own party haven't had his back. when he tried it in 2009 when he first took office and tried to get funding to shut down guantanamo republicans were outraged but harry reid the democratic leader in the senate who helped block that request for money and i have the line here harry reid said firmly we will never allow terrorists to be released into the u.s. and it just seems, it crosses party lines the fear of outrage in the public by releasing terrorists.

    >> the 76 that have been cleared, with some of them there's a conditional aspect to that clearance but what that means is that they are cleared, they have been evaluated to no longer be a national security risk to the united states . if transferred. that's very important to be. and as far as democrats and obama being on the hook for that i absolutely agree. it was diane feinstein who was very instrumental in getting the moratorium on transfers to yemen in place. now to her credit i think she has reversed that position but this is something that you see over the course of guantanamo bay 's life as it gets more and more of a bipartisan glean, the public polls incredibly high and disturbingly high. there's a 2012 poll that said 70% of those poll approved of president obama 's decision to deep prison open. in terms of explaining things to the next generation that poll will be a very unpleasant follow explain.

    >> a lot of it depends how the question is framed. we go back to tissue that's enormous. we have been for decades, more than a century most powerful nation on earth. we need have the best informed public on earth. if the question is framed as, and i think in most people's minds it would be should we have this guantanamo bay in place to protect our nation, the great bastion of liberty and defender of all other free nations from harm people would say yes we should because that's really the way it's been framed. there was some purpose that was served by its establishment. clearly 11 years is a very long time to detain people with no trials. that sounds unfair. 86 people are being detained apparently for no reason at this point?

    >> you remember congress, i'm curious, you were confronted this and former member of congress you're asking about it, what was your thinking? what would you like to see done in your mind?

    >> well, there's a protective element that comes into play. so what we don't want to happen, obviously, if there's some -- if there's some doubt about the potential dangerous nature of the remaining detainees at guantanamo , then obviously the safety position is to say we're not going to change anything here until we're absolutely certain what we're doing. so that was a big part of the decision-making on behalf of congress.

    >> john wants to get in and he's going to right

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