13 detainees at Guantanamo protest with hunger strike

Captives claim harsh conditions

Navy calls complaints propaganda

April 09, 2007|By New York Times News Service

A new hunger strike has broken out at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with more than a dozen detainees subjecting themselves to daily force-feeding to protest their treatment, military officials and lawyers for the detainees said.

Lawyers for several hunger strikers said their clients' actions were driven by harsh conditions in a new maximum security complex to which about 160 prisoners have been moved since December.

The 13 detainees now on hunger strikes are the most 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 Guantanamo has continued even as the military has tightened its control.

"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 physician, 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 Guantanamo, Cmdr. Robert Durand of the Navy, played down the significance of the current hunger strike, describing the prisoners' complaints as "propaganda."

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

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

By the time he was transferred a few days later to a "feeding block" where hard-core hunger strikers are segregated from other prisoners, his condition had stabilized, and his weight was nearly back to its ideal level for a man his size. His exact weight gain was not recorded.

Lawyers for several detainees being held in the new maximum security complex, called Camp 6, compared it to "super-max" prisons in the United States. The major differences, they said, are that the detainees have limited reading material and no television, and that only 10 of the approximately 385 men at Guantanamo have been charged.

The Camp 6 inmates are generally locked in their 8-by-10-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day, emerging only to exercise in small wire cages and shower. Besides those exercise periods, 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."

Durand, the Guantanamo 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 he denied that they suffer any greater sense of isolation in the new cellblocks.

Because reporters are prevented from speaking with detainees or visiting most of the cellblocks they occupy, it is impossible to verify the accounts of either side.

"Anytime something changes, people will seize on that as an opportunity to say that things are getting worse," Durand said. "This was designed to improve living conditions, 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-in athletic field where they might 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 to limit the detainees' freedom of movement and reduce the risk that they might hurt themselves or attack guards, military officials said. Senior officials expressed concern in interviews about how prisoners would react to the greater isolation in Camp 6.

Most had been held on makeshift blocks of wire-mesh cells that - while often hot, noisy and lacking privacy - enabled them to communicate easily, pray together and even pass written messages. Guantanamo's other maximum-security unit, Camp 5, has pods of cells that face each other across a short hallway, enabling the 100 detainees there to converse fairly easily.

Lawyers for half a dozen Camp 6 detainees said their clients were uniformly despondent about the move.

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