SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay prison has grown and now involves at least 21 men, a U.S. military official said Monday while denying reports trickling out from prisoners through lawyers that there is a more widespread protest and lives are in danger.
No prisoner faces any immediate health threat from the strike, though two have been admitted to the prison medical clinic because of dehydration, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention center at the U.S. base in Cuba.
In recent weeks, as lawyers returned from Guantanamo with accounts of clients weak from hunger and an angry standoff with guards, the military had said no more than a handful of prisoners met the definition of being on hunger strike, which includes missing nine consecutive meals.
That figure rose to 14 on Friday, and then grew by seven over the weekend. It has become the largest and most sustained protest at Guantanamo in several years, but Durand insisted there is no evidence to support reports of a strike involving most of the 166 men held there.
“The detainees certainly have the support of one another,” Durand said. “But if it was 166, I would tell you it was 166. I don’t have a reason to lowball or pad the numbers.”
A prisoner from Yemen, Yasein Esmail, told his attorney that he lost about 35 pounds (15 kilograms) after striking for 29 days and was struggling to keep his balance, according to notes taken by the lawyer, Washington-based David Remes, during a March 5 visit.
“Many of the detainees are desperate,” Esmail told his attorney. “They feel like they’re living in graves.”
The U.S. military does not identify hunger strikers and will not let journalists speak to prisoners so the account could not be verified.
A letter sent Thursday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that was signed by more than 50 lawyers who have represented Guantanamo prisoners said they had received reports that “the health of the men has continued to deteriorate in alarming and potentially irreparable ways.” They urged him to meet with them and work out a solution with the military officials in charge of the prison.
Lawyers say the protest began Feb. 6, when a relatively new officer in charge of camp operations, Army Col. John Bogdan, ordered an intensive search of the communal pod-like area where a majority of detainees are held. Guards confiscated personal items such as family letters, photos and mail from attorneys. The prisoners also said government-issued Korans were searched in a way they considered religious desecration.
Another apparent factor in the protest is the fact that the U.S. has largely stopped transferring and releasing prisoners because of security restrictions imposed by Congress and the administration of President Obama.
Durand said there had been no changes in the way searches are conducted. He said Korans are searched for contraband by Muslim translators, not guards, and are treated in a respectful way. The protest is simply a way to attract attention, he said.
“They have sort of fallen out of the public view and most of the legal issues have been settled,” Durand said. “If you want to burst back into the media then you have to start complaining about either Koran abuse or detainee abuse or deteriorating conditions.”
Hunger strikes have been a fixture at Guantanamo since shortly after it opened in January 2002. The largest one began in the summer of 2005 and reached a peak of around 131 prisoners, when the facility held about 500 detainees. The U.S. military broke the protest by strapping detainees down and force-feeding them a liquid nutrient mix to prevent them from starving themselves to death. As of Monday, the U.S. was feeding eight of the 21 prisoners on strike, Durand said.
An inmate hunger strike at Guantanamo prison has entered its 40th day, with more than 100 reportedly taking part. Experts warn of health risks over a strike prompted by the confiscation of prisoners’ belongings and rough handling of Korans.
The prisoners’ lawyers, along with other experts and former detainees, are sounding the alarm over the inmates’ critical condition. “They are indeed threatening their own lives, putting their lives on the line in this heroic effort to express a sense of autonomy, outrage at being imprisoned in what can be characterized as nothing less than the American sort of medieval torture chamber,” anthropologist Mark Mason, who studies the cultural factors behind human suffering, told RT.
“We have here conditions where 166 people are imprisoned, more of half of them cleared, they should be out to the streets, free today,” Mason added. “I frankly cannot describe some of the horrific conditions and treatment and humiliation that many detainees have reported. They have been stripped and required to stand around in cold rooms for hours naked. This is itself a physical stressor, but it is almost unspeakable psychological torture.”
“We are humans, we are not eagles in a bag of skin, we relate to each other, we need human contact and relationships to be healthy psychologically and physically,” he said.
Mason claimed that the US lives in a “distortion zone,” where “people imprisoned in Guantanamo should be free while the president, our former president, vice president and bankers in the US and Wall Street should be in jail.”
US President Barack Obama began his first term by announcing his intention to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Now, just two months into his second term, the prison has entered its 12th year of operation with 166 detainees still languishing behind bars and a reported 130 on a life-threatening hunger strike.
9- to 12-year-old kids detained and tortured in Guantanamo?
Former Guantanamo detainee Murat Kurnaz described to RT the horrible conditions he faced while being detained there, and explained the reasons behind the hunger strike.
“I have been tortured in different kinds of ways. There are no human rights over there. That means they could do whatever they wanted to with us,” Kurnaz said. “They tortured me to force me to sign papers and every time I’ve refused, they kept on torturing me in different kind of ways.”
“They really tried everything to break us including psychological and physical torture. I myself got tortured by electroshocks and waterboarding. I have seen also kids 9 years and 12 years old inside the camp. It was very difficult to watch how those kids getting beaten up in front of me,” he added.
Kurnaz argued that detainees have “many justified reasons” to go on a hunger strike:“It is a bad situation, prisoners want to go to court and want their rights back. They don’t have the opportunity to go to the court or see their families. They do not have the right to write or receive letters.”
The state of legal limbo was also frustrating for Kurnaz, who was determined to be innocent by the US but had to spend an extra five years in detention because Germany refused to take him back.
“Their hunger strikes are the only way they have of making themselves heard. Years and years without any hope of release. Without any real charges,” political writer and activist Sara Flounders told RT.
Lawyers for the Guantanamo prisoners said the men began the hunger strike on February 6 in protest against the alleged confiscation of personal items such as photographs and personal mail, as well as the alleged sacrilegious handling of their Korans during searches of their cells.
The Center for Constitutional Rights said that they have received reports of detainees coughing up blood, losing consciousness, losing more than twenty pounds of weight and being hospitalized. Medical experts have predicted that by the 45th day of a hunger strike, participants can experience hearing loss and potential blindness – on top of the psychological suffering they have endured for more than a decade.
The UN issued a statement this week that the US is violating international human rights law by holding detainees indefinitely and without charge.