Pentagon: Nearly 1-in-4 Gitmo detainees on hunger strike

A January 19, 2012, file photo of the front gate of the "Camp Six" detention facility of the Joint Detention Group at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

NEW YORK As the U.S. military acknowledged that nearly one-in-four detainees at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison for foreign terrorism suspects are participating in a two-month-old hunger strike, the Pentagon defended its treatment of those detainees.

As of Thursday, with 166 detainees at Guantanamo, there were 40 hunger strikers, said U.S. Navy Captain Robert Durand, meaning the men had refused all meals for at least three days straight.

For weeks, defense attorneys have suggested based on phone calls from and site visits with detainees that far more detainees than the military counts are hunger striking, particularly in Camp Six, where a majority of the detainees live in the prison's most communal environment.

Of the acknowledged hunger strikers, 11 had lost enough weight to prompt prison officials to strap them to a chair and force-feed them liquid nutrients in a tube down their nose and throat, according to Durand.

At the same time, the Pentagon's top official overseeing detainee affairs, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense William Lietzau, has sent a letter to detainee attorneys reiterating military's "commitment to the welfare and safety of both the detainees and the guard force."

"We take the safety and security of those detained at Guantanamo Bay very seriously, and we conduct our detention operations humanely and in accordance with the highest standards," Lietzau wrote Monday to the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has coordinated defense counsel efforts since the prison opened in 2002 and released the letter Thursday.

Lietzau's was formally responding to a March 14 letter sent by 51 detainee attorneys to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressing "urgent and grave concern" about the mass hunger strike that began in early February, those attorneys have said, as a protest against invasive cell searches and prolonged detention without charges.

Lietzau described as "routine" the guards' searches of detainee cells for contraband, including thumbing through Korans, which many detainees consider a desecration.

"Standard operating procedures governing Koran searches have been strictly followed. Those standard operating procedures were specifically formulated to ensure that the Koran is handled at all times with the utmost respect," Lietzau wrote.

In the past, he said, "Items found have included improvised weapons, unauthorized food and medicine, and other items which detainees could utilize to harm themselves, guards, medical personnel, translators, instructors, attorneys, or other detainees."

The Koran searches had not occurred for years, according to defense attorneys, who say that, in addition, Guantanamo guards recently began confiscating detainee personal items such as photos, letters, legal papers, blankets, and exercise mats.

Addressing force-feeding the sickest hunger strikes, Lietzau said, "It is the policy of the Department of Defense to support the preservation of life by appropriate clinical means, in a humane manner, and in accordance with all applicable laws and policies. The medical staff continuously monitors and provides exemplary medical care to detainees."

The military has said its follows the guidelines for hunger strikers used by the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Omar Farah, a Center For Constitutional Rights attorney who represents seven Guantanamo detainees, said Lietzau's letter was "troubling" in its omission of "any concrete steps the Defense Department is currently taking to address the complaints that gave rise to the hunger strike in the first place."

Farah read Lietzau's letter as a signal the military would force-fed more detainees if the hunger continues to grow. He said one Yemeni detainee he represents, Tariq Ba Odah, has endured force feedings on and off for more than six years.

"It is not humane. He says it is brutal and utterly humiliating. In any event, it is not a solution to the crisis unfolding at the prison," Farah said.

General John Kelly, who runs the U.S Southern Command that oversees Guantanamo, told Congress last month he believed the hunger strikers were "frustrated" with the Obama Administration's delays in moving toward closing Guantanamo or releasing even any of the 56 men cleared for transfer by an interagency task force three years ago.

Fayiz al-Kandari, a Kuwaiti detainee on a hunger strike, has appeared to lose so much weight that one of his attorneys described him last month as "skin and bones."

"I scare myself when I look in the mirror," Al-Kandari told his attorneys last week. "Let them kill us, as we have nothing to lose. We died when Obama indefinitely detained us. Respect us or kill us. It's your choice."

  • Phil Hirschkorn

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