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Guantanamo Hunger Strike “Potentially Life-Threatening,” Attorneys Allege in Letter to Prison Officials

The prisoners, many of whom have been cleared for release, refused food when guards started to seize their personal items, such as books, family photos, letters and legal mail.

For the past three weeks, nearly all of the 166 prisoners detained at Guantanamo have been engaging in a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their confinement, which they claim have worsened as many enter their eleventh year of captivity, according to attorneys for some of the men.

The prisoners, more than half of whom have already been cleared for release, told their attorneys that they refused food when Guantanamo guards started to seize their personal items, such as razors, toothbrushes, books, family photos, letters and legal mail. The prisoners also allege that Arabic interpreters have desecrated their Korans when they have searched the holy books for “contraband.”

In a letter sent to Rear Adm. John W. Smith, the prison commander, and Navy Capt. Thomas Welsh, the chief staff attorney at Guantanamo, attorneys who represent the prisoners in habeas corpus proceedings said, “as a result of these practices, we understand that the men are suffering greatly.”

“We have received reports of men coughing up blood, being hospitalized, losing consciousness, becoming weak and fatigued and being moved to Camp V [a disciplinary area of the prison] for observation,” states the letter signed by more than a dozen attorneys who represent the prisoners in habeas corpus proceedings. “Detainees have also expressed feeling increased stress, fear, and despair.”

The letter was sent to the Guantanamo officials by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), whose lawyers also represent some of the prisoners on the hunger strike.

The attorneys have requested that Smith and Walsh respond to their letter by Wednesday. They claimed that the prisoners will end the hunger strike when “the arbitrary and regressive practices,” including all intrusive searches of the Qur’an,” cease.

The Pentagon has vehemently denied many of the prisoners’ allegations. Defense Department spokesman Todd Breasseale characterized the charges about the desecration of Korans as “Taliban propaganda.”

“We deny it categorically,” Breasseale told Truthout. “The professional military guard force entrusted with the care and safety of the detainees at [Joint Task Force] Guantanamo Bay is one of the most thoroughly scrutinized group in the US military.”

Breasseale also disputed the claims that the hunger strike is widespread, claiming it only involves five prisoners.

“There is not a mass hunger strike amongst the detainees” at Guantanamo, Breasseale said, adding, “detainees peacefully protest various issues from time to time along a host of issues ranging from availability of particular brands of breakfast cereal to enforcement of long-established camp rules.” “Some detainees have attempted to coordinate a hunger strike and have refused meal deliveries. While the overwhelming majority of detainees are not participating, there are currently a half a dozen detainees tracked as hunger strikers, which is about what we have averaged for the past year. A very limited few detainees have engaged in hunger strikes for several years.”

Regardless of how many prisoners are currently engaged in the hunger strike, CCR said the Obama administration is missing the point.

“Rather than dispute the severity or extent of the hunger-strike, the administration should end the practices that gave rise to the current protest,” CCR said in a statement provided to Truthout. “It must also take a hard look at the root cause of our clients’ desperation: 11 years of indefinite detention, years of abuse and mistreatment, and broken promise after broken promise by the Obama administration to put an end to this failed experiment.”

CCR said the Defense Department’s denial of a prison-wide hunger strike is “unconvincing.” In its statement to Truthout, it said the letter sent to Smith and Walsh “was prompted by alarming information about a widespread hunger-strike and protest at Guantanamo that has been corroborated by almost every attorney who has visited Guantanamo or otherwise communicated with their clients since February … We take these reports very seriously, particularly because they indicate that prisoners have been precipitously losing weight.”

Prisoners who refuse nine consecutive meals are classified as hunger strikers. Some attorneys have told Truthout prisoners currently on hunger strike have been force-fed by Guantanamo medical personnel, a procedure that has been described as torture.

Guantanamo force-feeding kit. (Source: Pentagon/Wikimedia)

The force-feeding policy parallels the Federal Bureau of Prisons policy and has been upheld by federal courts. A 2009 Defense Department report describing the force-feeding process at Guantanamo characterized it as “a medical procedure with the sole purpose of preserving life and health, and in accordance with Common Article 3 and [Department of Defense] policy.”

Enteral feeding is the process of providing nutritional support for a patient by passing a tube through the nose into the stomach (a nasogastric feeding tube), through which nutritional supplements, such as Ensure Plus or Boost Plus, can be infused. This is a common medical procedure used to safely provide nutrition to a patient who is not taking food by mouth, but whose intestinal function is intact (e.g., a patient whose jaw is wired shut). The nasogastric tube used is size 10 or 12 French, which would be 3.5-4.5 millimeters in diameter (slightly larger in diameter than a piece of cooked spaghetti but less than a pencil eraser). The tube should be well lubricated (viscous lidocaine should be offered, but some patients prefer other lubricants). After insertion of the tube, its placement in the stomach is confirmed prior to allowing the nutritional supplement to flow in from a hanging bag by gravity. This procedure usually takes about an hour, after which the feeding tube is removed. Once stabilized, most patients can be sustained on two feedings per day.

One prisoner who has experienced dramatic weight loss is 37-year-old Fayiz al-Kandari , a Kuwaiti who has been detained at Guantanamo for nearly 11 years. His military attorney, Air Force Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, told Truthout Tuesday that al-Kandari has lost roughly 26 pounds and another Kuwaiti prisoner, Fawzi al-Ohda, 24 pounds since they began hunger striking three weeks ago. Wingard, who is currently at Guantanamo visiting with his client, said neither prisoner has been “tubed yet.”

Wingard said al-Kandari was “unfocused and had difficulty focusing on our various discussions.”

On a Facebook page set up for al-Kandari and al-Ohda, 35, a post dated February 28 claimed Guantanamo guards were taunting the hunger strikers.

“In response to the hunger strike, soldiers opened containers of food so the smell could fill the prison,” the Facebook post alleges. “The prisoners were then asked if they wanted one or two servings of food. The response with a big smile: ‘Do you really think the smell of your food is stronger than our religion?'”

Breasseale declined to respond to the Facebook post.

“We do not discuss communications – real or imagined – between detainees and the guard force, regardless of the medium by which it is conveyed or who conveys it to the press,” Breasseale said.

Al-Kandari and al-Ohda have been held at Guantanamo since 2002. The US government claims they are members of al-Qaeda who traveled to Afghanistan to fight against Americans. Legal teams for the prisoners maintain the Facebook page. Al-Kandari and al-Ohda are frequent hunger strikers whose petitions for habeas corpus were rejected.

“There is a real sense of frustration and desperation beginning to sink in here,” Wingard said. “I believe the bigger problem is that the 30- to 40-year-old men have decided not to passively die in animal cages without an opportunity to represent themselves, now well into their twelfth year. For them, any hope of justice has long since faded and death is looking like the only road out of Guantanamo.”

In January, the State Department shut down the office that was set up to close Guantanamo and repatriate the prisoners who have been cleared for release.

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