SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico Lawyers for Guantanamo Bay prisoners said Monday that a widespread hunger strike was under way over deteriorating conditions, but a prison spokesman denied there was any mass protest at the U.S. base in Cuba.
Attorneys for more than a dozen of the prisoners said in a letter to the prison commander, Rear Adm. John Smith, and released to the media that "all but a few men" have been on hunger strike for three weeks. They said the situation "appears to be rapidly deteriorating and reaching a potentially critical level."
The lawyers said the protest was prompted by a series of searches that began on Feb. 6 in which a number of personal items, including religious CDs, blankets and legal mail, were confiscated, and included what they felt were overly intrusive searches of their Qurans by Arabic translators that amounted to desecration.
"As their health has deteriorated, we have received reports of men coughing up blood, being hospitalized, losing consciousness, becoming weak and fatigued, and being moved to Camp V for observation," the lawyers wrote, referring to a camp that is used in part to hold men who violate prison rules.
A prison spokesman, Navy Capt. Robert Durand, said the Department of Justice would respond to the attorney's letter, but added that there were only about six prisoners who have missed enough meals to be classified under the military's rules as being on hunger strike. He said that number has remained constant for about a year.
"There is not a mass hunger strike among the detainees," Durand said. "Some detainees have attempted to coordinate a hunger strike and have refused meal deliveries. Most detainees are not participating."
He said detainees "have chosen one routine search in early February as the rallying point for their grievances." He also said Qurans are treated with respect.
The U.S. holds about 166 men at the prison. A mass hunger strike involved many of the prisoners in the summer of 2005 but the protest dwindled after the military began strapping them down and force-feeding them a liquid nutrient mix to prevent them from starving to death.