Monday, September 19, 2005


By William Fisher

A hunger strike by that began in June by terror suspects imprisoned by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GITMO) – and reportedly settled – has been restarted and is growing, with 15 detainees hospitalized and 13 being fed through tubes.

The number of hunger strikers varies. The military has said at various times the number is 89 and 76. But a lawyer for a group of detainees says the number is now 200 and growing.

“As far as their reasons for hunger striking, it seems to be a myriad of different reasons that they all have, the largest one seems to be like they want to protest their continued (detention),” said British lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, who represents 40 detainees, including one of the hunger strikers — Briton Omar Deghayes, 36.

He added, “Their future is uncertain from a legal point view so they are trying to find out exactly what their future entails.”

The hunger strike is the second since late June. The first ended after the authorities made a number of promises, including better access to books, and bottled drinking water.

"Eventually, because people were near death, the military caved and let us set up a prisoner welfare council of six prisoners,” one detainee is reported to have said.

But the prisoners claim that they were tricked into resuming eating. One said, "The administration promised that if we gave them 10 days, they would bring the prison into compliance with the Geneva conventions. They said this had been approved by (Defense Secretary) Donald Rumsfeld.”

He said, “As a result of these promises, we agreed to end the strike on July 28. "It is now August 11. They have betrayed our trust (again).”

A military spokesman, Sgt. Justin Behrens, said in a written response to questions submitted by the Associated Press, that some of the striking detainees “have not eaten for a month. The others have refused at least nine consecutive meals. Fifteen have been hospitalized and 13 of those were being fed through tubes. Medics are monitoring all 89 and checking their vital signs daily.”

Previously, the military has said that 76 inmates were participating in the hunger strike.

“People are desperate”, said lawyer Stafford-Smith. “They have been there three years. They were promised that the Geneva Conventions would be respected and various changes would happen and, unfortunately, the (U.S.) government reneged on that.”

He added, “Sadly, it is very hard to see how a very obstinate military and a very desperate group of prisoners are ever going to come to an agreement.”

Another Guantanamo prison spokesman, Maj. Jeff Weir, said the military would not allow the detainees’ conditions to become life-threatening.

“Basically, if you stop eating and wait several weeks or months, it is a slow form of suicide,” Weir told British Broadcasting Corp. radio and television. “No detention facility in the world will deliberately let their people commit suicide, so we can’t let that happen.”

Statements from the hunger strikers were declassified by the U.S. government last week and turned over the Stafford-Smith. He said they reveal that the men are starving themselves in protest at the conditions in the camp and at their alleged maltreatment - including desecration of the Qur'an - by American guards. The statements were written on August 11.

In another declassified statement, British detainee Omar Deghayes, said: "In July, some people took no water for many days. I was part of the strike and I am again this time. Some people were taken to hospital, and put on drip feeds, but they pulled the needles out, as they preferred to die. There were two doctors. One wanted to force-feed the men, but they got legal advice saying that they could not if the men refused. In the end the military agreed to negotiate. We came off the strike [on July 28 2005], but we gave them two weeks, and if the changes were not implemented we would go back on strike."

That is apparently what occurred. However, the Department of Defense today declined to comment beyond Maj. Weir’s prepared statement.

U.S. human rights groups are expressing concern “We are very concerned about the health of individuals held at Guantanamo,” Avi Cover, an attorney at Human Rights First, said, “The hunger strike is a tragic and inevitable consequence of a detention system that is distinguished by secrecy, contempt for the rule of law, and that is fraught with physical and mental abuses,” he said, adding, “At the very least independent monitors and independent physicians should be permitted access to the prisoners. Family members of those striking should be notified of their relatives’ physical condition and whether they have been hospitalized.”

Like Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, infamous for its much-photographed abuse of prisoners, Guantanamo has become a lightning rod for criticism by human rights advocates, lawyers, foreign governments, and many American lawmakers.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, a conservative Republican Senator from South Carolina, has called on lawmakers to enact legislation that would force the U.S. military to strictly adhere to the U.S. Code of Military Justice (USCMJ) in its treatment of prisoners. The USMCJ forbids cruel and degrading treatment.

Others in the U.S. Congress have called for an independent commission to investigate conditions at Guantanamo. These include Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was held in captivity for eight years and tortured by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

Many American lawmakers, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, have called for the prison facility to be shut down.

But Guantanamo has also had its defenders. For example, Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the prison “is ideally placed, “overlooking the water…It would make a beautiful resort.” Obviously looking for endorsements from influential opinion leaders, he urged his fellow senators to visit the facility.

And the powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, put on a presentation of what he called GITMO’s “five-star cuisine: Lemon fish, two types of fruit, two types of vegetables”. This is lemon fish,” he told a press conference. “And this is what the 20th hijacker [of the September 11th attacks] and Osama bin Laden's bodyguards will be eating this week in Guantanamo."

The uncertain legal status of Guantanamo detainees has been a principal source of controversy. Various Federal Courts have expressed differing views on whether detainees have access to the U.S. criminal justice system, or whether they can be held without charge indefinitely as ‘enemy combatants’ as determined by President George W. Bush. The military legal review system at Guantanamo has been widely criticized.

There are numerous appeals of court decisions now on their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brian J. Foley, a professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, says the hunger strike is “a direct result of the minimal legal process that our leaders, using our government and in our name, have deigned to provide for these men to prove they're not ‘enemy combatants’. The process doesn't give these men a meaningful opportunity to be heard. Nor do most of these men have access to lawyers or the outside world. What else is left for them to do?”

The prison at Guantanamo opened in January 2002 and now holds around 520 prisoners from 40 countries. More than 230 others have been released or transferred to the custody of their home governments. Many were captured during the U.S. war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.