Monday, April 9, 2007


April 9, 2007

Guantánamo Detainees Stage Hunger Strike

A long-term hunger strike has broken out at the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay,
Cuba, with more than a dozen prisoners subjecting themselves to daily
force-feeding to protest their treatment, military officials and
lawyers for the detainees say.

Lawyers for several hunger strikers said their clients’ actions were
driven by harsh conditions in a new maximum security complex. About 160
of the roughly 385 Guantánamo detainees have been moved to the complex
since December.

Thirteen detainees are now on hunger strikes, the largest number to
endure the force-feeding regimen on an extended basis since early 2006,
when the military broke a long-running strike with a new policy of
strapping prisoners into restraint chairs while they are fed by plastic
tubes inserted through their nostrils.

The hunger strikers are now monitored so closely that they have
virtually no chance to starve themselves. Yet their persistence
underscores how the struggle between detainees and guards at Guantánamo
has continued even as the military has tightened its control in the
past year.

“We don’t have any rights here, even after your Supreme Court said
we had rights,” one hunger striker, Majid al-Joudi, told a military
doctor, according to medical records released recently under a federal
court order. “If the policy does not change, you will see a big
increase in fasting.”

A military spokesman at Guantánamo, Cmdr. Robert Durand of the Navy,
played down the significance of the current strike, calling the
prisoners’ complaints “propaganda.”

But the protests come as criticism of Guantánamo continues to rise
in the United States and abroad. Last week, after the Supreme Court
denied a new appeal on behalf of the detainees, the head of the
International Committee of the Red Cross delivered a rare public
reprimand to the Bush administration, saying the prisoners’ ability to
contest their detention was inadequate.

Newly released Pentagon documents show that during earlier hunger
strikes, before the use of the restraint chairs, some detainees lost
more than 30 pounds in a matter of weeks. By comparison, the current
hunger strike — in which 12 of the 13 detainees were being force-fed as
of Friday — seems almost symbolic.

For instance, the medical records for Mr. Joudi, a 36-year-old
Saudi, showed that when he was hospitalized on Feb. 10, he had been
fasting for 31 days and had lost more than 15 percent of his body

By the time he was transferred a few days later to a “feeding block”
where more serious hunger strikers are segregated from other prisoners,
his condition had stabilized and his weight was nearly back to an ideal
level for a man his size. (His exact weight gain was not recorded.) Mr.
Joudi was subsequently flown home and turned over to the Saudi
authorities, his lawyer said.

Lawyers for several detainees held in the new maximum security
complex, known as Camp 6, compared it to “supermax” prisons in the
United States. The major differences, they said, are that the detainees
have limited reading material and no television, and only 10 of the
Guantánamo prisoners have been charged.

The Camp 6 inmates are generally locked in their 8-foot-by-10-foot
cells for at least 22 hours a day, emerging only to exercise in small
wire cages and to shower. Besides those times, they can talk with other
prisoners only by shouting through food slots in the steel doors of
their cells.

“My wish is to die,” one reported hunger striker in the camp, Adnan
Farhan Abdullatif, a 27-year old Yemeni, told his lawyer on Feb. 27,
according to recently declassified notes of the meeting. “We are living
in a dying situation.”

Commander Durand, the Guantánamo spokesman, dismissed such accounts
as part of an effort by the prisoners and their lawyers to discredit
the detention mission. He described the new unit as much more
comfortable than the detainees’ previous quarters, and denied that they
suffered any greater sense of isolation in the new cell blocks.

“This was designed to improve living conditions,” Commander Durand said, “and we think it has.”

Camp 6 was originally designed as a modern, medium-security prison
complex for up to 200 inmates, with common areas where they could
gather for meals and a large fenced athletic field where they could jog
or play soccer outside the high concrete walls.

But after a riot last May and the suicides of three prisoners in
June, the unit was retrofitted before opening to limit the detainees’
freedom and reduce the risk that they might hurt themselves or attack
guards, military officials said.

As Camp 6 was opening, senior officials expressed concern about how
prisoners would react to its greater isolation. Most had been held in
makeshift blocks of wire-mesh cells that — while often hot, noisy and
lacking privacy — allowed them to communicate easily, pray together and
even pass written messages.

Guantánamo’s other maximum-security unit, Camp 5, has cells that
face each other across a short hallway, allowing the roughly 100
detainees there to converse fairly easily. In Camp 6, the prisoners can
see one another from their cells only when one of them is being moved.
At other times, they look out on the stainless-steel picnic tables in
the common areas they are not allowed to use.

Lawyers for several Camp 6 detainees said their clients were
despondent about the move even though, as military officials note, the
new cells are 27 square feet larger than the old ones and have
air-conditioning, nicer toilets and sinks, and a small desk anchored to
the wall.

“They’re just sitting on a powder keg down there,” said one lawyer,
Sabin Willett, who, like others, described growing desperation among
the prisoners. “You’re going to have an insane asylum.”

Lawyers who visited Guantánamo recently said the detainees reported
a higher number of hunger strikers than had the military — perhaps 40
or more. Military officials said there were sometimes “stealth hunger
strikers,” who pretend to eat or surreptitiously vomit after eating,
but they dismissed the detainees’ estimates as exaggerations.

Because reporters are prevented from speaking with detainees or
visiting most of their cell blocks, it is difficult to verify the
conflicting accounts.

Hunger strikes have been part of life at Guantánamo almost since the detention center opened in January 2002.

They reached a peak in September 2005, when more than 130 detainees
were classified as hunger strikers, having refused at least nine
consecutive meals, military records show. As the strikes went on, some
detainees being force-fed continued to lose weight by vomiting or
siphoning their stomachs with the feeding tubes. But by early February
2006, shortly after the military began using restraint chairs during
the forced feedings, the number of hunger strikers plunged to three.

The number rose again sharply but briefly last May, reaching 86
after three detainees attempted suicide and a riot broke out as the
guards searched for contraband. Yet even then, no more than seven
strikers were forced into the restraint chair regimen.

Three detainees who had been hunger strikers hung themselves on June
10. After July, no more than three detainees subjected themselves to
extended forced feeding.

That number began to grow again as detainees were moved into Camp 6
in December. By mid-March, the number of hunger strikers reached 17.
For the first time, as many as 15 detainees continued with the strikes
despite being force-fed in the restraint chairs.

Military officials have described the restraint chair regimen as
unpleasant but necessary. They originally said prisoners needed to be
restrained while digesting, so they could not purge what they were fed.

Now, the rationale has changed. The restraints are generally applied
“for safety of the detainee and medical staff,” records show, and they
are kept on for as little as 15 minutes at a time, rather than the two
hours commonly used before. Afterward, the prisoners are moved to a
“dry cell” and monitored to make sure they do not vomit.

Even so, some detainees describe the experience as painful, even gruesome.

One Sudanese detainee, Sami al-Hajj, a 38-year-old former cameraman for Al Jazeera,
described feeling at one point that he could not bear the tube for
another instant. “I said I would begin to scream unless they took it
out,” he wrote in a recent diary entry given to his lawyer. “They
finally did.”

Stephen H. Oleskey, who represents Saber Lahmar, an Algerian
religious scholar whom military officials accused of propagating a
religious legal ruling that was linked to the suicides, said of his
client: “The man has been in segregation — virtual isolation — for over
nine months. Physically and emotionally, he’s collapsing. We think this
punishment does exceed what the law allows, and that he won’t survive.”

Military officials said Mr. Lahmar and other detainees had received adequate medical attention.

Margot Williams and William Glaberson contributed reporting.

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