General calls Guantanamo hunger strikers "frustrated"

From left to right: Hussain Almerfedi, Said Hatim, Fayiz Al-Kandari and Yasin Ismail. They are detainees at Guantanamo who are on a hunger strike, said defense attorneys. CBS

NEW YORK The U.S. military now labels as "hunger strikers" 25 detainees at the naval prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, up from 10 detainees just a week ago.

The hunger strikers include eight men receiving what the military calls enteral feeds -- when a detainee is strapped to a chair and force-fed Ensure liquid nutrients through tube down his nose. Two men being force fed are being kept in the Guantanamo hospital.

Five hunger strikers have been refusing meals regularly for years, according to the military, while the other 20 have refused at least nine meals in a row and have not been observed eating snacks.

At a House of Representatives Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington today, Marine Gen. John Kelly, who heads the U.S. Southern Command that oversees the Guantanamo base, was asked why so many detainees were staging hunger strikes.

"They had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed," Kelly said. "They were devastated when the president backed off."

General Kelly said detainees learned President Obama did not restate the goal of closing Guantanamo in his second inaugural address or in this year's State of the Union speech. In January, the administration also closed a State Department office dedicated to repatriating the prisoners.

"That has caused them to become frustrated, and they want to turn the heat up," Kelly said.

According to defense attorney estimates, many of the 130 men housed in Guantanamo's most populous Camp Six have told them they have skipped meals for weeks and lost significant weight, as CBS News reportedlast week.

These attorneys say their clients are hunger striking to protest searches of their cells, including Korans, confiscations of comfort items, and their long-term incarceration without charges upwards of 11 years.

The military describes cell searches for contraband as routine and denies that guards touch the Korans.

There are 166 detainees left at Guantanamo, down from a peak of 779. Guantanamo opened as war on terror destination for foreign captives, particularly from Afghanistan, in January 2002.

At least 56 remaining detainees were approved for transfer to their home or third countries by a 2010 executive branch task force, which included representatives of the military, but none of the detainees left or are scheduled to leave the prison due to transfer restrictions imposed by Congress.

Omar Farah, a defense attorney who represents seven detainees, said, "I think the government is finally yielding on the steady drumbeat of information that we, the lawyers, have been getting from our clients -- that there is a widespread hunger strike."

Farah receive a phone call six days ago from one detainee he represents, Fahd Ghazy, from Yemen, who told him, "All but a handful of prisoners who are too old or too weak are participating," Farah said. "Some are contemplating refusing water."

Farah said Ghazy told him that he had been refusing food and was only drinking water and tea since early February, losing 30 pounds. Ghazy arrived at Guantanamo in 2002, at age 17.

Another detainee Farah represents, Tariq Ba Odah, also from Yemen, is among the five men on a years-long hunger striker. Ba Odah has refused meals since 2007, Farah said.

Farah is affiliated with the Center For Constitutional Rights, which sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week, signed by 51 attorneys, expressing concerns over conditions at Guantanamo. CCR has not yet received a response from Hagel.

  • Phil Hirschkorn

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