Guantanamo hunger strike poses new challenge

200 detainees won't eat

officials try to gain control


WASHINGTON - A hunger strike at the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has unsettled senior commanders there and produced the most serious challenge yet to the military's effort to manage the detention of hundreds of terrorism suspects, lawyers and officials say.

As many as 200 prisoners - more than a third of the camp - have refused food in recent weeks to protest conditions and prolonged confinement without trial, according to the accounts of lawyers who represent them. While military officials put the number of those participating at 105, they acknowledge that 20 of them, whose health and survival are being threatened, are being kept at the camp's hospital and fed through nasal tubes and sometimes given fluids intravenously.

The military authorities were so concerned about ending a previous strike this summer that they allowed the establishment of a six-member prisoners' grievance committee, lawyers said. The committee was ended quickly, the lawyers say.

Maj. Jeffrey J. Weir, a spokesman at the base, said that the prisoners who are being fed at the hospital are generally not strapped to their beds and gurneys but are in handcuffs and leg restraints. Another prisoner at the hospital is voluntarily accepting liquid food.

Weir said the prisoners usually accept the nasal tubes passively because they know they will be restrained and fed forcibly if necessary. "We will not let them starve themselves to the point of causing harm to themselves," he said, describing the process as "assisted feeding" rather than force-feeding. On at least one occasion, he said, a prisoner was restrained and forcibly fed.

One law enforcement official who has been fully briefed on the events at Guantanamo said senior military officials had grown increasingly worried about their capability to control the situation. A senior military official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the situation as greatly troublesome for the camp's authorities and said they had tried several ways to end the hunger strike, without success.

Clive Stafford Smith, a British lawyer for several of the detainees, said he was visiting some of his clients last month when the most recent strike began. He said that a detainee, Omar Deghayes, told him that the strike was largely to protest their long imprisonment without being charged with any crime as well as the conditions of their confinement.

Stafford Smith said an earlier hunger strike ended on July 28 after the camp authorities agreed to improve conditions.

He said that one inmate, Shaker Aamer, negotiated the end to that hunger strike with a camp official he identified as Col. Michael Bumgarner, who said he had been authorized to address some of the prisoners' grievances.

Stafford Smith, who represents Aamer, said his client told him that Bumgarner said he would ensure that the detainees would thereafter be treated "in accordance with the Geneva Accords." That included, Stafford Smith said, the establishment of the six-member committee to represent the prisoners in talks with the authorities. Such representative committees are called for in the Geneva Conventions, although they had not been formed at Guantanamo. The Bush administration has said that while the Guantanamo detainees are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, they are generally treated by its standards.

Stafford Smith said the committee only functioned for a few days before authorities disbanded it.

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