More than a third of Guantanamo detainees now on hunger strike, Pentagon says

In this Oct. 9, 2007 file photo, Guantanamo guards keep watch over a cell block with detainees in Camp 6 maximum-security facility, at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File

NEW YORK A week after a raid that put Guantanamo Bay's largest and most communal prison camp under lockdown, the number of detainees the U.S. military says are participating in a 10-week-long hunger strike has grown to 63 of the 166 men held at the camp -- more than one-third of the men incarcerated there, according to the Defense Department.

Just a week ago, the Pentagon's official tally was 42 men on hunger strike at the prison camp.

Fifteen of the hunger strikers are currently being force-fed liquid nutrients, "to preserve life or prevent serious self-harm," said Guantanamo spokesman Capt. Robert Durand. The process involves a detainee being strapped to a chair and having Ensure poured into a plastic tube that runs down his nose and throat.

In the past eight days, Durand said two detainees had tried to commit suicide by hanging themselves. The U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the Navy base in southern Cuba, has designated seven of the nine detainee deaths at Guantanamo since it opened in 2002 as suicides.

The military commander at Guantanamo, Rear Admiral John Smith, ordered the early morning April 13 raid on Camp Six, because guards could no longer see inside the facility, Durand said. Detainees had covered up 147 of the 160 security cameras and hung sheets blocking the guards' view of the common areas.

"This action was taken to ensure the health and safety of the detainees. I cannot say emphatically enough: it was not done to 'break' the hunger strike," Durand said. "We made the decision to move detainees into individual cells based on the detainees' continued efforts to block observation."

Durand said detainees had begun covering security cameras in February, when the hunger strike began. In statements conveyed by their attorneys, the detainees claimed they began refusing meals following stepped-up inspections that included searching their Korans -- considered a desecration -- and confiscating personal items such as photos, letters, legal papers, and exercise mats.

"The lack of continuous observation warranted serious concerns," Durand said. "We should have gone in earlier."

Half the 130 detainees who lived in Camp Six have been moved to the more restrictive Camp Five.

Ghaleb Al-Bihani
Ghaleb Al-Bihani
CBS/Handout

One of them is Ghaleb Al-Bihani, according to his attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei, from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

"When we met at Guantanamo last week, he had lost over 40 pounds and was visibly weak," Kebriaei said.

A 2004 U.S. military assessment posted by WikiLeaks alleged that al-Bihani, born in 1979 in Yemen, fought with al Qaeda against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. After nearly 11 years at Guantanamo, he has yet to be charged with any war crime./p>

"Instead of pre-dawn raids, violence, brutal force-feeding," Kebriaei said, "the administration should direct its energy to closing the prison by appointing an official to lead the effort forward and releasing the men it never intends to charge."

Base medical staff monitor detainees for weight loss and ill effects from hunger striking. Refusing meals for three consecutive days is a red flag.

"This is exactly the opposite of what the military should be doing," said Ohio federal defender Carlos Warner, who represents Guantanamo detainee Fayiz Al-Kandari, from Kuwait. "The military is escalating the conflict."

Warner, Kebriaei, and other detainee attorneys claim that more men than the military acknowledges -- even most of the 130 men who lived Camp Six -- are on hunger strike, based on detainee statements and in-person visits with them.

Last Saturday's raid came the day after a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only independent group allowed access to the detainees, departed after three weeks at the base. The ICRC does not comment publicly on its findings, but it opposes force-feedings.

"We raise issues bilaterally to maintain access and hopefully impact the situations we work from within," said ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno.

Captain Durand disputed an Op-Ed column by detainee Samir Naji al-Hasan Moqbel published April 15 in the New York Times stating two detainees now weighed less than 100 pounds.

"None of the new hunger strikers has gone below 100 pounds," Durand said. He said one detainee who has been hunger striking for years did drop to 90 pounds last year but recently weighed 120 pounds.

In a Washington federal court on Monday, detainee attorneys lost a motion seeking an order for the military to cease what the lawyers claim is retaliation against hunger strikers, such as allegedly depriving them of clean drinking water and keeping cells at chilly temperatures. The claims have been made by detainees, including Moqbel, in statements via their attorneys.

Musaab Omar al-Madhwani
Musaab Omar al-Madhwani
CBS/Handout

The motion was filed on behalf of hunger-striking detainee Masaab Omar al-Madhwani, 32, from Yemen, who says he has refused food and for more than a month.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan denied the motion.

"The court wrongly ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to provide any of the requested relief," said attorney Mari Newman, from Denver, who represents al-Madhwani and four other detainees.

"Judge Hogan's ruling that the courts have no jurisdiction to order humanitarian and life-saving relief for Mr. al-Madhwani is yet another blow in an unbroken record of every branch of our government abdicating responsibility for lives of the innocent men that it has tortured and imprisoned for over a decade," Newman said.

Newman and other detainee attorneys say, besides discontent over more invasive cell inspections, the underlying cause of the hunger strike is indefinite detention without charges coupled with the knowledge that half the detainees have been approved for transfer but are not leaving.

"I have no reason to believe that I will ever leave this prison alive," Madhwani stated in a written declaration. "Indefinite detention is the worst form of torture. I am an innocent man. I have never done anything against the United States, and I never would."

"You can understand why people are going on a hunger strike if they feel like they have no other option," said Zeke Johnson, Director of Amnesty International USA's Security with Human Rights Campaign. "It's shocking that we're in this place four years after President Obama promised to close Guantanamo."

Mr. Obama signed an executive order shortly after taking office in January 2009 to close Guantanamo within a year. While that did not happen, 71 detainees were released in his first two years.

Congress has since blocked detainee transfers to the U.S. mainland either for incarceration or trial and has imposed steep hurdles for detainee release. For example, the Secretary of Defense must personally certify in writing that a detainee will pose no future threat if released.

"We think Secretary Hagel should move forward with certifying detainees who've been cleared for transfer," Johnson said.

One of those 86 eligible detainees is Shaker Aamer, the last of 15 British residents or citizens held at Guantanamo.

Britain's Parliament has scheduled 90 minutes of debate on Aamer's case for April 24, according to British Member of Parliament Jane Ellison, whose district includes the area of London where Aamer's wife and four children live.

Ellison moved to schedule the debate after an online petition calling for Aamer's return to the U.K. obtained the required 100,000 signatures. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has repeatedly called for Aamer's release.

"This debate on the Shaker Aamer e-petition is an important opportunity for Members of Parliament to raise many serious concerns about Mr. Aamer's ongoing detention and the conditions in which he is held at Guantánamo Bay," Ellison said. "We urgently need some clarity both on Mr. Aamer's health and the diplomatic efforts being made to secure his release back to the U.K."

Detainee Younus Chekkouri, 44, from Morocco, has told his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, that he has lost 30 pounds on the hunger strike. "Really, now it is just pain everywhere. I don't want to die in Guantanamo," Smith recalled Chekkouri telling him in a phone call last week.

The tension at Guantanamo comes as the military commissions that substitute for federal trials on the base hit another roadblock. Hearings that were scheduled this week for one detainee accused in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and hearings scheduled next week for five men implicated in the September 11th terror attacks have been postponed until June because of two problems with defense attorney computers.

First, as part of a commission request for documents, thousands of confidential defense emails were forwarded to military prosecutors, who said they noticed the communications in their in-boxes but did not read them. Second, a number of classified files defense attorneys are required to store on military servers at Guantanamo or the Pentagon went missing.

"We first noticed the significant loss in February," said Air Force Colonel Karen Mayberry, Chief Defense Counsel for the military commissions.

Mayberry said some of the 95 defense attorneys and paralegals using the system had discovered certain notes and draft filings were deleted, and then, it happened again last month.

"I have directed that everybody that works here not store anything confidential or privileged on those drives, and we don't send confidential or privileged matters by email," Mayberry said.

Detainee attorney Carlos Warner said of the computer troubles and delays: "The military court is not failing, it has failed. Guantanamo remains a legal black hole where civilized rules do not apply."

  • Phil Hirschkorn

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